Picking Money Out of the Air (part 3 of Magic Island)

This is part 3 of the article, “Magic Island.”  Read part 2 here.

Collecting stories about Vanuatu’s magic was one thing; performing my own magic was something I had to creep up on.

Early on, Don Macquoid arranged a performance date for me at The Waterfront Restaurant for Tuesday evening.  He contacted the newspaper, as well.

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The next day, while standing at the hotel registration counter, I performed a coin trick for a pretty ni-Vanuatu girl.  A crowd gathered, including all the counter staff, several bellboys, and a couple security guards.  After the coin work, I graduated to borrowing some silverware and bending a few of those with my mind.

I waited for them to throw me in a pot.  Instead, they just gathered around, eyes wide open, astonished as no Westerner over the age of 11 can be astonished.

“I’ll be playing at the Waterfront on Tuesday,” I said.

“We’ll be there,” one of them said.

“Can you tell me if my baby will be a boy?” one young woman asked.

I placed my hand on her belly for a minute, pondered, and then answered: “Yes, a boy.”

Later, I performed on the street, true to my street beginnings, in the open market to a crowd of 100 poor, uneducated ni-Vanuatu.  They did not throw me in a pot, either.  Over the next few days, I performed to strangers all over Port Vila—in restaurants, in retail shops, even on public sidewalks.

By Tuesday evening, word had gotten around and there was a huge crowd gathered at The Waterfront, a mixture of expatriates, ni-Vanuatu, and tourists who just happened to be in the restaurant.  With a microphone hanging around my neck, I went through my whole comic stage show.  Two months later, Macquoid later told me, his customers were still talking about it.

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I performed several tricks, the centerpiece of the show being The Silence of the Lemons, which can be seen in another context here.  Most Westerners enjoy this show, but ultimately conclude that it must have been just an elaborate trick that is simply impenetrable to them.  It seriously bothers some people, especially engineers, egotists, and bona fide geniuses, all of whom stake their entire identities on being able to figure things out.  These types come up to me days after my performance, their eyes red and fatigued.

“I’ve been staying up nights thinking about your tricks, dammit,” one husky egotist said.

But Westerners rarely go to the place where they believe—actually truly believe—that I can magically penetrate an uncut lemon with their own bill: It is just a sublime puzzle.

The ni-Vanuatu, however, are different.  After this show, as well-earned sweat was rolling down my neck and I was walking among the audience and shaking hands, I saw a different expression on the faces of the ni-Vanuatu in the audience.  One ni-Vanuatu stopped me and asked me to teach him a trick.

“It’s that trick where you….” and then he started laughing as he thought about it, his middle-aged eyes crinkling, “…that trick where you…” and once again, he devolved into laughter, “…where you pick the vatus [Vanuatu coins] out of the air.

It was the trick that I had performed at the hotel registration desk.  This man had seen an immediate application to the trick: He, too, wanted to pick coins out of the air.  To him, it was real.  I was a rich white man, and that’s how I became rich.

[Read part 4 here.]

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.

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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

These People Have Not Seen Such a Thing Before

In 2004, I traveled to the South Pacific to the island chain of Vanuatu to write a travel article for the New York Daily News.  People are curious once again about the connection that I found between indigenous people and magic.  For them, I reprint this article.

In Vanuatu, a string of islands in the South Pacific, the natives all live a secret life.

At Le Meridien resort, a fit young Melanesian man in a grass skirt and headdress opens the door of your taxi with a warm smile, but he is not what he seems.  Neither is the husky Melanesian bartender at Breakas, where you swim up to the bar and order a Margarita while gazing at a stunning beach.  Nor the slender Melanesian driver who takes you three hours over dirt roads to the active volcano of Mount Yasur; here, nobody is what they seem.

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The people of Vanuatu, men and women with dark faces and old ways, are called ni-Vanuatu, meaning literally, “people of Vanuatu.”  Today, nearly all ni-Vanuatu believe in a world in which magic, real magic, is a literal fact of life.

In Vanuatu, they will tell you, there are magic men who can fly, transfigure into animals, and walk around invisibly.   Dead spirits reside in banyan trees, which can be seen beside every highway, and which are illegal to cut down without the clearance of a magic man.  And if you don’t watch out, practitioners of black magic will cast a curse on you.

I was inexorably drawn to this magical land, since I make my living as a magician, performing magic in nightclubs, at sales meetings, and at various other corporate events.  But I worried: How would the ni-Vanuatu react to my magic?

I had heard of the American soldier who was stationed on Vanuatu during WWII, and to whom they had later named a religion: the John Frum cult, named after the sergeant’s own name, “John from America.”  And I had also heard of the Christian missionaries who had been eaten by the ni-Vanuatu in the 1800s, when cannibalism was simply an expression of displeasure.

I wondered if, after seeing me pull a coin from a child’s ear, the villagers would throw me in a pot or start a David Frum religion.

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When you fly into Vanuatu, it is Port Vila on the island of Efate that you see first.  It is a bustling town of 36,000, the streets populated mostly with black-skinned ni-Vanuatu and Australian tourists.

I ran into several eyewitnesses to real magic in Port Vila, and even more believers—nearly everyone here believes—but the most riveting was Paco Mete, our guide at the Botanical Gardens.

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“Once,” said Paco, “I see magic man cut a coconut in two, and then, suddenly, clap the two halves back together, healing it.  Then, I see a conch shell grab onto a leaf as if it was a hand.”

Before leaving the Botanical Gardens, I read a display that told the secret of how some magicians walk around invisibly.  First, they boil a black cat live.  Then they place one of the cat’s bones in their mouth.  Finally, the display declares with confidence, they can walk around invisibly.

Everywhere I went in Vanuatu, people encouraged me to drink kava, a local leaf that is distilled into a hallucinogenic beverage.  After drinking kava, you can see and even talk with the dead spirits, they told me.

Port Vila, however, was the capital town.  I was eager to see what lay in store for me on one of the more remote islands.  Tanna, I had heard, was brimming with magic and mystery.  There are 28,000 people on Tanna, most of whom are villagers who live in thatched huts in the jungle, without benefit of electricity or indoor plumbing, without a Western education, without television, radio, or mass media of any sort.  Many Tannans believe with all their hearts, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that magic happens every day, all the time.

So when the opportunity arose to visit Tanna, I leapt at the chance.

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A flight to Tanna is a flight away from all modern security concerns.  We boarded a 10-seater plane, without any kind of X-ray screening, and one of us sat next to the pilot.  Once we landed, the Tanna International Airport was no larger than a steakhouse.

Whitegrass Bungalows is a charming property with 12 bungalows perched directly on the oceanfront, each with an incredible panoramic view of reefs, ocean, and endless sky.  Each hour, it seems, reveals a different visual masterpiece.

That evening, a group of us sat down in the Whitegrass restaurant with Chief Tom Numake of the Evergreen Village, a Melanesian man with a black face and an authoritative, dignified presence.

“A magic man can turn into a dog, squirrel, flying fox,” Chief Tom said plainly.  “If he doesn’t like another man, he can wait till the man go fishing, then turn into a shark and eat the man.  A magic man can turn into a cat and climb in a window, and if you touch this cat, you will die.

“And devils are real.  When you come across a devil, your ears become long like a cow’s ears, your hair becomes colder, and you start shaking.

“I know these magic men, and they can fly from island to island—bam—in two seconds.  And you can going flying with him.  You hold on his pants and close your eyes.  You hear singing and then you start flying.  You fly straight—straight through buildings and mountains and whatever stands in your way.

“But if you open your eyes, you get stuck inside the mountain or the building or  whatever.  If I had known before that you wanted to fly, I would have arranged for you to fly.”

There was not a trace of humor in his voice.  Then he described what magic men use to communicate instead of telephones.

“They use marigolds,” Chief Tom said.  “They talk into a flower on Tanna and somebody on the other island can hear them.  In fact, we can use these marigolds to talk to people in the United States.  Have you ever seen someone in the United States with a flower behind their ear?  Well, that’s the talking flower.”

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The next day, we toured Yuiniar, a kastom village, meaning a village that follows “custom,” the old ways.  There, for an admission price, they give you a fascinating glimpse into indigenous life.  A ni-Vanuatu guide with a bare chest showed us around and described what life is like in this primitive village in the jungle, from hunting and gathering, food preparation, social life, and the like.

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After the 40-minute tour, in a large clearing in front of a huge banyan tree, where the dead spirits reside, over 300 villagers in grass skirts and painted faces performed a tribal dance.  They were asking the gods to bless their yam harvest.

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Finally, when the dance was over, our driver, Belden, asked the chief whether I could perform a show for the villagers, and he consented.  The entire tribe gathered around me.  If there was a moment to be afraid, this might have been it.  These are people, after all, who dance to please the gods.

I performed the sponge balls, and after each magical moment, there was an audible “Ohhhh!” as 300 people expressed their astonishment at the same time.  A few superstitious elderly Iwners laid back with a conflicted, suspicious look on their faces, like maybe I’m the real thing, like maybe I’m going to put a curse on them, like maybe I’m a devil who’s come to make their ears long like cow’s ears.

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But in the end, to my relief, I didn’t get thrown in a pot.  I also performed a rope trick, the disappearing scarves, and Ashes on the Palm, and they loved it all.  As we were driving away from Yuiniar, over bumpy dirt roads, heading back to our bungalows, Belden finally spoke.

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“These people have not seen such a thing before,” said Belden from behind his steering wheel.  His eyes betrayed some deep emotion, perhaps awe or, maybe, gratefulness.  “You have shown them a very great thing.”

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Back in Port Vila, I took a cruise with Peter Whitelaw, owner of Sailaway Cruises.  Peter is an Australian who sailed into Port Vila in 1980.  A cyclone suddenly hit and his boat was destroyed.  He’s remained in Vanuatu ever since.

Whenever anyone dies at a young age or gets sick unexpectedly, Peter says, the ni-Vanuatu assume that someone cast a curse on that person.

But then he made a stunning confession: He, too, had seen real magic firsthand.  Peter is clearly a Western mind, an Aussie with a B.S. in electrical engineering.  A couple years ago, one of his ni-Vanuatu boatmates told him that he was being dogged by a curse that had been placed on him.  Peter was skeptical, of course.

But then one day, the mate was eating in the galley when his plate split into pieces in front of them all for no reason.  The shards and food all fell to the floor.

“This happens all the time,” said the ni-Vanuatu man with a besieged look on his face.

When I perform magic in the States, standing onstage with my magic wand, most people consider what I do “just tricks.”  But there is a whole world out there, hundreds of millions of indigenous peoples, who believe that the world is more than just numbers and facts and the concrete.  They believe that the world is, like the stunning volcano on Tanna, surprisingly malleable and unexpectedly wondrous, that the world is, in a word, magic.

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And who am I to disagree?