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.

A Rose for Doug Slater

Ten years ago, I learned how to twist a napkin rose. I thought it was a pretty neat trick. You take a cocktail napkin and twist it into something that looks like a rose. To boot, I bought some napkins that were specially printed, three-quarters green and one-quarter red, to make it easier.
I told my magician friend Doug Slater about it, and he smiled. He had been there before me. He took out a couple napkins and showed me the real work on it.

Doug didn’t cheat by using a preprinted napkin; instead, he used two napkins, one red and one green. Unlike me, he knew all the little touches and twists. He cared about every little part of the process.

As Doug showed me his work on the napkin rose, I realized that when he put his mind to it, he could master a subject not just thoroughly and completely, like the engineer that he was, but with a measure of love. In fact, he and his friend Elroy videotaped an instructional videotape on the subject that, for technical reasons, never made it to market.
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Doug, I never mastered the napkin rose as you did. But now that you’re gone, I offer this napkin rose to you. It’s not as good as you could have made, but it’s the best I could muster with my limited skills. Rest in peace, my friend.

Something in Her Face Was Incredibly Alive

The other evening, we watched a movie that was pretty blah.  There were many things wrong with it, but the most obvious thing was the emotional texture of the film.  I always find the emotional texture of Ronald Bass films terribly false.  It made me think of a woman we met a couple years ago.

Claire and I were on our usual 35-minute walk together.  Toward the end of it, Claire said hi to a woman who was picking up the newspaper in her driveway.  Claire is sometimes too friendly, and truth be told, so am I.

“Hello,” the woman said back.

It was a sixtysomething woman who was picking up her Sunday newspaper from the driveway.  There was something in her face that was incredibly alive, and I wasn’t sure what.

“How are you?” Claire said.

That was the wrong thing to ask.

“I don’t know, not very good, I guess,” she said.  “My husband just died.”

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We stopped.  Given her tone, it seemed disrespectful not to stop.  The woman started talking, and I don’t know how, but we became planted there while she poured out the details about her husband.  She blamed it on some horrible consumer product that had turned his brain into Swiss cheese, just ate away at it so that he was a walking zombie.  What made that woman’s face seem so alive, I guess, was that she was staring directly into the face of Death.

“It just doesn’t seem real,” she said.  “We’ve lived in this house for 40 years, and now, suddenly, he’s gone, and he didn’t have to be gone….”

We stood there listening to her rail against the pesticide companies, talk about her outrage, her pain, and her grief, all in a tone of voice that could not be ignored.  Believe it or not, this conversation with a stranger stretched on for a half-hour or more.  On the one hand, it seemed like a little miracle, like we had boiled everything down to the essentials: three souls connecting, listening, consoling.  On the other hand, however, she was a stranger.  Our time was precious.  And we had a movie to go to.  Finally, I spoke up.

“You know, Claire, that movie starts really soon,” I said.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” the woman said.  “I don’t want to hold you back.  Thank you so much for listening.”

Perhaps her relatives wouldn’t listen.  Perhaps she was a bit crazy.  Or perhaps her cup spilleth over so much that even her family couldn’t give her what she needed.  At any rate, we went to the movie, which was also a Ronald Bass movie and wasn’t very good.  They say that he doesn’t write the scripts himself, but hires a committee of young writers, and then brings all their ideas together and chooses from the “best” of them.  But it was Hollywood emotions, not real emotions, and that day, we had seen the real thing.

And that night, when I laid my head down to sleep, all I could think of was that woman’s face, and how alive it had been.  And I haven’t forgotten it in the several years since.

150,000 Times

We were sitting around at the Magic Castle on January 2, at the 51st anniversary party.  From out of the blue, Siggie asked if any of us had any cigars.  She’s always been kind of a firebrand.

“My father died of smoking in 1989,” I shot back with a bite in my voice.

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

Everybody at the table was silent for a long moment.  Finally, Adam chimed in cheerfully.

“How do you know he died of smoking?”

I shot him a look.  He was wearing a red suit and a shit-eating grin on his face.

“Because he was a pack-a-day smoker,” I said.  “He went into the hospital with one of the most advanced cases of undiagnosed COPD and emphysema the doctor had ever seen.  He died of a series of strokes and heart attacks.”

Family 260

Smoking at age 21 in Korea.

“Yeah,” Adam said, “but how do you know it was the smoking?  Lots of people these days are dying of lung cancer who never smoked in their lives.”

“My father didn’t die of cancer.  It was COPD and emphysema.”

Clearly, Adam wasn’t understanding my tone, which was filled with venom and warning, or perhaps he was perversely choosing to ignore it, maybe to get under my skin.

“I know that,” Adam said, “but how did you know it was smoking that caused it?”

“Adam,” I said, “the Surgeon General issued a report as far back as 1964 showing a strong correlation between smoking and lung disease.  This is well established.”

“That was a long time ago,” Adam said.  “Our research has come a long way since then.  There are all sorts of reports these days finding different kinds of things.”

“What kinds of things?”

My father approximately age 58

My father approximately age 58, looking quite a bit older and sicker.

Adam floundered for a while trying to answer that one, and I let him flounder.  He was proving himself wrong, although by that time, there was nobody else there to witness it.  Adam has a similar contrarian view on climate change, government regulations, the national debt, and other Fox News lies.

“You can’t tell me what kinds of things,” I finally said.  “But I can tell you that the tobacco companies are evil.  Reagan’s Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, said that smoking was as addictive as heroin.  And I can tell you that on his deathbed, my Dad said that he had tried to quit 150,000 times.  Those were his exact words, ‘150,000 times.’  And after he died, we went through his stuff and found all sorts of literature about smokers’ rights.  And you know who published it?  Organizations that were funded by Philip Morris and all the other tobacco companies.”

I never did convince him, but he convinced me of something: that he appropriately summed up the dictionary definition of ignorant.

To read my other posts about my father’s death from smoking, click here and here.

The Dark Secret in the Glass-Enclosed Cabinet

During the holidays, I go to a helluva lot of parties.  Clients hire me to perform at corporate parties for employees and their wives.  Fancy parties for celebrities from the A list to the ZZZZZZ list.  Filipino parties in Cerritos in middle-class homes with a roast pig and they say, “Eat, eat!”  Sometimes, clients even fly me into other cities for the parties, and I stand on a lovely stage in San Francisco, New York, or Denver.

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But four years ago, I was hired to perform magic at a home Christmas party in La Crescenta, and that was the beginning of something.  I was hired to perform four hours of walkaround, strolling magic for an extended family.

If you don’t know what walkaround closeup magic looks like, look at this video:

It seemed like just a regular gig.  It was a sprawling but not gaudy house nestled in the foothills.  The lady of the house, Jane, was an energetic grandmother who lived alone, and I’m still not sure what the story is about her husband, whether he’s dead or disenfranchised, because nobody ever talks about him, even though I do the party every year now and have become a regular fixture of it.  In addition, Jane had hired caterers to provide a nice little spread, a clown to play with the toddlers, a photo booth, and some guy to set up an exciting slot-car racetrack for the grandkids under a tarp on the other side of the swimming pool.

At the party, I performed for this group and that group, eliciting gasps and laughter, which is the service they hire me to provide, gasps and laughter, it’s what I sell, it’s what people buy.

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And all the while, I’m marveling at Jane, because you can tell she’s an extraordinary woman.  The energy she gives off sets her apart.  She’s about 65 and has these quick eyes, this airtight mind, and this presence that is equal parts granite and love.  It’s hard to say how I can tell this, but it comes through just by looking at her, that she’s a one-in-a-thousand woman.  As the party progresses, I’m performing magic constantly, but behind my performances, there’s a river of thought running beneath it.  I begin to think that with Jane, I’m in the presence of someone who could accomplish anything, and probably did.  The house is probably worth a couple mil, and I’m thinking her extraordinary character must have had something to do with it.

After a couple hours, I slowed down and chatted with one of Jane’s sons.

“Gee, everybody seems so happy and friendly at this party,” I said.  “My family’s not like this.  There are people not talking to other people, one uncle who hasn’t come to the family party for 15 years because he had a financial disagreement with his brother-in-law over a business deal.  There’s a cousin who brings a woman to our parties that his son was originally dating.  I have a nephew who won’t hug me when he sees me because he’s mad at his father.”

“He’s mad at his father and he doesn’t hug you?”

“It’s crazy.  But you guys seem to have the ideal family.”

“Oh, we have that kind of stuff, too,” he said.  “You just can’t see it, but it’s there.”

Neurology face 1a

It gave me some solace to know that dysfunction isn’t unique to my people, but is the lingua franca of the holidays.

Towards the end of the party, I had elevated Jane to goddess status.  That’s when she filled me in on the history of the party.

“This is the first time I’ve had this party in 11 years,” she said.

“Oh, did you have a magician at the party before?” I said.

“Yes, it was a magician named Mark Furey, and he did it for ten years running.  But apparently, Mark isn’t doing magic anymore.”

Mark, I knew, had gone on to greater success as a screenwriter.  A couple of his movies had been produced, and apparently, all his time was now devoted to manufacturing words for the silver screen.

I interrupted our conversation to perform a little standup show in the living room for the 80 people assembled, and it was a hit.  People came up to me to make the usual comments.

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“How do you do that?”

“That card trick was sick.”

“You are a freak of nature.”

They were the highest of compliments.  I felt rather confident at that point, thinking that I might take over as the magician who performs at this party for another 10 years.  It was a good thing, because Jane had hired me at a pretty good rate of pay.  Finally, as I was packing up, Jane came over to tell me how much she had loved the show.

“Why did you stop having the party for 11 years?” I asked.

It was the wrong question to ask.  Jane’s face fell.  I thought maybe I had stepped into a landmine of dysfunction, perhaps, or maybe something worse.  That’s when Jane led me over to a tall glass-enclosed cabinet filled with photographs.

“My son would have loved your magic,” she said, her voice suddenly becoming somber.  “He passed away 11 years ago.  These are all my pictures and mementos of him.”

And it was, indeed, a shrine to her late son about eight feet high and the width of a grandfather clock.  Here was a photo of her son on the high school swim team, her son on his first day of school, her son’s college diploma.  And while she showed me, I realized exactly why Jane had taken an 11-year hiatus from Christmas parties.  She had been overcome with grief.  She couldn’t be gay and merry.  She had felt like dying.  She had felt that celebrating anything, even Christmas, would betray her son’s memory.

But 11 years had passed and people had convinced her to pull herself out of it.  Now, somehow, she had found it within herself to gather the family at her house again.  She was wearing a red sweater with a reindeer on the front.  She gave out boxes of chocolates as gifts as people left.  She hired a magician again.  As she stood talking about her beloved son at the photograph-filled cabinet, I realized that the grief hadn’t gone away, of course, but it had reduced to a manageable level.

Not only that, but she had realized that she had a choice.  She could be sad in her isolation, or she could step back into life.  Jane had chosen life.  And I was glad to bring a little magic into that life.

Update: Once again this year, I performed at Jane’s party.  Here’s the video of my parlour performance, which followed the walkaround performance.