An Outburst of Pure Irish Passion

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

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

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

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

This guy has talent, I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gary being Yiked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grand, he says.

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

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

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

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

There, I’ve said it.

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

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

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

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

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

Mariachi promo pic 1Drinking and fighting. While traveling through Ireland, I took photos of both. The first was outside a pub in Drogheda, a half-hour’s drive north of Dublin, where we caught a staggering, drunken man trying to light a fag.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Deep the Rabbit Hole Goes

Last weekend at the Magic Castle, I was performing my closeup magic show at the tables.  At midnight, I was thinking about leaving when a group of Japanese walked up to the table.

Closeup Wonderground merge 2 smaller“You do show for us?” the younger man asked.  I later discovered his name was Masa.

“Of course.”

And so I launched into my main show, which lasts about 20 minutes.  I had to pronounce my words more slowly because of the language barrier.  Sometimes, I would deliver a joke, look up, and be greeted with uncomprehending silence.  Such are the wages of national identity.

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Still, there were heartwarming moments of commonality in my show.

“Morpheus asked, ‘Do you want the blue pill or the red pill?  When you make the choice, you will discover how deep the rabbit hole goes.’”

I was referring, of course, to the moment in the movie The Matrix when Morpheus offers Neo a choice between a blue pill, which will allow him to return to his life, or the red pill, which will allow him to see the whole truth about his reality.  But one man took a different meaning.

“Blue pill?” he asked  “Like Viagra?”

Pharmaceuticals are apparently an international language.

And so is magic.  Whenever I finished a trick, Masa would gaze at me in wonder and express his astonishment.

“I have not seen this type magic,” Masa said.  “Is best I have seen.  Is very attractive.”

When the show was over, though, it was my turn to be astonished.  Masa turned out to be Masanori Takumi, a thirtysomething composer/musician from Tokyo who was in town for the Grammys, which were to be held the following evening.

“I show you my medal,” Masa said, and pulled out a bronze medal with “Grammy nominee” embossed on it.

Turned out the other men in the group were his agent, his producer, and three other business associates.  Apparently, Masa writes a lot of music for anime and video games, and is quite famous in Japan.  After the show, I was so impressed that I gave him a guided tour around the Castle.  I didn’t get home till 2:30 am.

The next evening, Masa didn’t snatch the big prize.  He was entered in the category of “Best Reggae Album” (a song he wrote was included on an album by Sly & Robbie and the Jam Masters called Reggae Connection), and seriously, how can you win against Bob Marley’s son Ziggy, who won for a live album.  It’s like competing against Zeus’s son in the category of Best Roman God.  Not only that, but Japanese reggae is, to be frank, a long shot, like kiwi salsa.  But still, I let him know via email how impressed I was.

“Just being a nominee means that you’re officially one of the five best this year,” I wrote.

“And you were the best I seen,” he wrote back.

Feeling Matters

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

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

David Groves with beard in twenties

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

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

A drawing of Orlando Alexander Groves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I tapped him on the shoulder.

“Are you Howard?” I said.

“Yes.”

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

“Yes, I was in that class.”

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

“Do you still play?”

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

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

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

Neurology Is the Country We All Inhabit

In 1989, I was reading through Psychology Today when I noticed a short article that intrigued me.  It was about a neurological phenomenon that alcoholics are quite familiar with but researchers knew little about.  When someone wakes up after a night of heavy drinking, of course, they often can’t remember what happened the night before.  That’s the definition of the term blackout.  But when they get drunk again, mysteriously, many can suddenly recall everything that happened.  The article was discussing recent research into this phenomenon.

Alcohol 1a smallerSuddenly, a light turned on in my brain.  Might I be able to use that phenomenon in fiction?  What if a life-or-death clue were buried deep within that blackout?  And what if the character was a recovering alcoholic, and getting drunk again was the last thing she wanted to do?

The concept seemed earth-shattering to me, and I carried it around in my head for 18 years before I began writing it.  Six years after first putting pen to paper, I’ve finally published the novel as What Happens to Us, available as an ebook http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU.

In recent years, popular books about neurology have become a bestselling category.  Oliver Sacks, V.S. Ramachandran, David Eagleman, and others have brought cutting-edge neurological science to the ordinary reader.  We now know about encephalitis lethargica (the malady in Sacks’ Awakenings, later made into a movie starring Robin Williams), synesthesia (depicted in the books of Vladimir Nabokov, Frank Herbert, Aimee Bender, and many others), autism spectrum (the malady spotlighted in the HBO film Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes), and so many other neurological abnormalities.

Neurology is the country we all inhabit.  In writing my own book, I discovered that my leading man, Dante, is a magician who had learned some sleight-of-hand moves as a teenager from a magical genius who never passed down his sleights to anyone else.  After the master died, Dante carried around irreplaceable treasures in his fingers.  When he unexpectedly lost three of his fingers, though, he discovered to his delight that the treasures were not lost, since he could still feel and describe those rare sleights to other magicians.  That neurological cache becomes as real to Dante as a table or a car.

Perhaps these phenomena are fascinating to us because they tell us so much about ourselves.  Phantom pain in lost fingers is analogous to what happens when we lose a loved one: They are never completely gone.  We may not all have full-blown synesthesia, as do Billy Joel, David Hockney, and Itzhak Perlman, but we can all relate to the blending of the senses.  We may not all have Asperger’s Syndrome, but we can all identify with the sense of being unable to read nonverbal cues in a foreign or disorienting culture.

Musicophilia

Music suffuses What Happens to Us, so I read Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia (Vintage, 2007, http://www.amazon.com/Musicophilia-ebook/dp/B000W939JI/ref=sr_1_1_bnp_1_kin?ie=UTF8&qid=1375674745&sr=8-1&keywords=musicophilia), which focuses on neurological abnormalities in music.  The book opens with a case study of a surgeon, Dr. Tony Cicoria, who was struck by lightning.  Soon, he became obsessed with piano music—first listening to it, then playing it, then furiously composing it from the notes he heard in his head.  By now, the obsession has lasted for nearly 20 years.

Sacks offers anecdotes of people blessed with absolute pitch, the ability to immediately detect the pitch of any note, offering the example of Sir Frederick Ouseley, who at age five was able to remark that his father blew his nose in the key of G, that a particular thunder was in the key of C, and that the wind was blowing in the key of D.

Sacks examines fascinating neurological afflictions.  One young professional violinist, for example, found that his fingers began disobeying his mind, making performance impossible.  One brilliant engineer had an aneurysm that destroyed his ability to feel emotion, and it was only when he sang that his range of feeling returned.   One elderly patient developed an increasing dementia that seemed to cause her to sing, to the point that towards the end, she was singing virtually nonstop every day.

The most fascinating phenomenon for me actually happened to Sacks personally.  In 1974, Sacks dreamed of a slow, dirge-like song that continued playing in his mind even after waking.  All day, he couldn’t get the song out of his head.  He tried many things to stop it, but to no avail.

Finally, Sacks called a friend and recounted his problem. He even hummed the tune a bit over the phone.  Then his friend said something rather strange.

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“Have you abandoned some of your young patients?” he asked.  “Or destroyed some of your literary children?”

Sacks was shocked.  He had in fact done both.  The day before, he had resigned his position in the children’s unit of a hospital where he worked, as well as burning a book of essays that he had just written.

“Your mind is playing Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, his songs of mourning for the death of children.”

The moment Sacks’ friend identified the problem, it cleared right up, and it hasn’t recurred in the 30 years since.

I’m so fascinated with neurology that I make a large portion of my living from it.  As I’ve mentioned before in these pages, I’m a professional magician, a sleight-of-hand artist.  One of the more neurologically fascinating feats of magic that I perform is the classic of magic, Paper Balls Over the Head, my performance of which can be seen on YouTube:

This is one of the few feats whose secret I can freely explain.  Here, I take advantage of peripheral blindness to give the illusion of making the paper ball disappear.  In addition, I take advantage of an alternating current of attention and inattention in the onstage volunteer, an AC current that is all too common—and not widely noticed—in our daily lives.

In What Happens to Us, my leading man is a magician, which gives me the opportunity to talk about some of these issues from an informed character’s point of view.

“Magic is the lie that’s presented to you,” my leading man says.  “Just like any lie.  The lie that advertisers tell you.  The lie that you tell yourself about your own limitations.  The lie that your mother told you about why she had you.   But it’s your job to see through the lie.”

A lie is certainly an excellent metaphor for the holes in our perception that are taken advantage of by magicians.  But the truth is also an excellent metaphor, as well, for there is nothing more true, disarming, and inspiring than the way in which our brains work.

The River Ran Through Him

I once knew a 3-year-old kid who was so musical that he would sing all the time.  Al was astounding.  While playing with toys, he would sing.  While walking, while eating, while in the car, there was a constant song issuing from his mouth.  I have never seen anything like it before or since.  Morning or night, it was like there was a river flowing through him, like the River of Fa La La.

The next time I saw Al was at age 16.  I was invited to dinner.  He was dressed in a baseball uniform and wasn’t singing anymore.  He was a handsome, muscular young man, still smiling and happy, but to tell the truth, it made me sad to think that the River of Fa La La within him had dried up.  It is so sad to see that dry riverbed.

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When I wrote my novel, What Happens to Us, http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU, I made a pact with myself to put in the novel all the best anecdotes I had ever lived through or heard of.  That’s how Al found his way into this passage:

“From the moment she could speak, Cat had sung all the time, constantly, never stopped.  Her first spoken sounds had been fa la la.  Occasionally, her mother would try to kill it.  “Will you stop it, girl, you’re driving me batty!”  Or she would just go into the backyard and pull a switch off the tree and give her daughter a whipping.  “That’ll teach you!”  In time, Cat learned to sing only outside the house.  It didn’t matter that people looked at her strangely at school.  By six, however, the forces of discouragement finally reached a critical mass.  One unpleasant boy called her Shut Up Mouth, “because you make me want to tell you to shut up your mouth.”  The term tard was thrown around.  So finally, she just shut up.

At 13, a neighbor convinced her mother that her child should start going to the local Baptist church.  Cat joined the choir, where Miriam, the red-haired choir director, knew music but not how to talk to people.  The strict doctrine of this particular faction prohibited both “mechanical instruments” and solos.  Cat often longed for a great voice, but then scolded herself for coveting personal glory.  Besides, it was Rose, the girl who stood next to her, who had an operatic voice and a three-octave range.

By the time Cat turned 17, strange things began happening in the church.  Miriam disappeared without a word.  Cat was now getting drunk with Lainie every weekend on fake IDs.  On Sunday mornings, desperately clinging to some vestigial idea of goodness, Cat dragged herself to church despite epic hangovers.

One day, Cat ran into Miriam at a hardware store.  A strange relaxation now filled her face and voice.

“I met a man,” Miriam said.

“Oh.”

“He’s teaching me about the world.  It’s not as bad as they say, the world.  It’s strange.  The further I get from the church, the happier I become.”

That confused Cat, because on the one hand, misbehaving pleased her, as well, but at the same time, her hangovers seemed like ancient judgment and pulled her back.

“They excommunicated me, you know,” Miriam said with a sly grin.

“You’re kidding.”

“They did it in secret.  Five miserable honchos in a church of seventy miserable wannabes trying to ruin the life of someone who’s finally thrown away her antidepressants.”

“That’s sad.”

Miriam sighed, then smiled.

“You’ve graduated, then?”

“Next month.”

“Will you be continuing your music?”

“Oh no, I’m no Rose.”

“Rose?”

“Yes.  I don’t have her technique.  She has all the talent.”

A mysterious smile appeared on Miriam’s lips.

“You’re mistaken,” Miriam said.

“What do you mean?”

Miriam had always withheld compliments because, she thought, Cat possessed only an average voice.  The dream that Cat might have anything better had been dashed a couple years earlier.

“Rose has all the skills and God-given gifts, that’s true,” Miriam said, “but there’s something more important than all that.”

Miriam searched for the words, as if they were scattered on the waters like lilies and she was mute until she saw the right one.

“You feel the music,” Miriam said in a conspiratorial near-whisper.  “The feeling makes all the difference.”

The look on Miriam’s face was something Cat had never forgotten.  Contrary to church doctrine, as it turned out, Cat had an actual self, and apparently, it was an extraordinary and beautiful one, as well.  She floated on a cloud for the longest time.  She took that comment and protected it in a glass case in her heart, even through her years as a drunk, and then into her past year of sobriety.  It was something she reached for when she was low.  When a man didn’t call her back after a first date or she failed to land the job she wanted or someone at work ran a head game on her, she would sit in front of the glass case and fill herself up with Miriam’s long-ago comment.

Now, with the street, Cat had a chance again.  Maybe now, the River of Fa La La would begin flowing through her again.  Maybe she could finally reclaim her self.”

What Happens to Us, http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU, is available for download onto your Kindle or computer for only $3.99.

Yesterday, I received an email from Al’s mother.  He just earned an engineering degree.  I hope he still has music in his life.

You Feel the Music

Sometimes authors draw from their own lives.  Take this, for example.  This comes from the coal mine that is my childhood.

I first started taking piano lessons at age 7, and by age 10, I was pretty good.  I had quick fingers, good dexterity, and swam easily through the underwater of the music.  However, adolescence wasn’t good to my hands.  They didn’t grow as large as I would have liked them to.  By age 16, I was playing complicated musical pieces–Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, all the greats–but I simply couldn’t make the big stretches.  A ninth (nine keys) was the most l could manage.

I was depressed.  You’re always depressed when you hit a glass ceiling.  I could hardly play Chopin’s “Military Polanaise,” for example, and Lizst was out of the question.  At recitals, the student I most envied was Bill, a piano student a year younger than I who had vast, expansive mitts.  When he played pieces with large stretches, his hands handled the reach easily.  The most demanding classics seemed to open up completely to him.  It was an immense sadness.

Mrs. Rogers had been my teacher for eight years, from the very beginning, and so she knew me quite well.  She was a lady from the old school, a Christian Scientist who suffered through illnesses without medication because of her religious beliefs.  But her traditionalism covered not just the religious realm.  She believed fervently in practice and perfection, orderliness and propriety.  In demeanor, she was somewhat reserved and had old-woman hair, sprayed and lifted into place like an Amish house.

Finally one afternoon while I was at a lesson, I mentioned my manual shortcomings to my teacher.  She seemed surprised that I felt that way.

“Oh,” Mrs. Rogers said with a knowing grin, “don’t worry about Bill, you’re much better than him.  You don’t have to envy him, David, oh no.  You have something that Bill will never have.  You feel the music in your soul.”

If I told you what those words meant to me, it would steal the thunder from the passage that I wrote years later for my own novel, What Happens to Us (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU).  The protagonist is a singer, and at one point, it goes like this:

From the moment she could speak, Cat had sung all the time, constantly, never stopped.  Her first spoken sounds had been fa la la.  Occasionally, her mother would try to kill it.  “Will you stop it, girl, you’re driving me batty!”  Or she would just go into the backyard and pull a switch off the tree and give her daughter a whipping.  “That’ll teach you!”  In time, Cat learned to sing only outside the house.  It didn’t matter that people looked at her strangely at school.  By six, however, the forces of discouragement finally reached a critical mass.  One unpleasant boy called her Shut Up Mouth, “because you make me want to tell you to shut up your mouth.”  The term tard was thrown around.  So finally, she just shut up.

At 13, a neighbor convinced her mother that her child should start going to the local Baptist church.  Cat joined the choir, where Miriam, the red-haired choir director, knew music but not how to talk to people.  The strict doctrine of this particular faction prohibited both “mechanical instruments” and solos.  Cat often longed for a great voice, but then scolded herself for coveting personal glory.  Besides, it was Rose, the girl who stood next to her, who had an operatic voice and a three-octave range.

By the time Cat turned 17, strange things began happening in the church.  Miriam disappeared without a word.  Cat was now getting drunk with Lainie every weekend on fake IDs.  On Sunday mornings, desperately clinging to some vestigial idea of goodness, Cat dragged herself to church despite epic hangovers.

One day, Cat ran into Miriam at a hardware store.  A strange relaxation now filled her face and voice.

“I met a man,” Miriam said.

Hand 1a

“Oh.”

“He’s teaching me about the world.  It’s not as bad as they say, the world.  It’s strange.  The further I get from the church, the happier I become.”

That confused Cat, because on the one hand, misbehaving pleased her, as well, but at the same time, her hangovers seemed like ancient judgment and pulled her back.

“They excommunicated me, you know,” Miriam said with a sly grin.

“You’re kidding.”

“They did it in secret.  Five miserable honchos in a church of seventy miserable wannabes trying to ruin the life of someone who’s finally thrown away her antidepressants.”

“That’s sad.”

Miriam sighed, then smiled.

“You’ve graduated, then?”

“Next month.”

“Will you be continuing your music?”

“Oh no, I’m no Rose.”

“Rose?”

“Yes.  I don’t have her technique.  She has all the talent.”

A mysterious smile appeared on Miriam’s lips.

“You’re mistaken,” Miriam said.

“What do you mean?”

Miriam had always withheld compliments because, she thought, Cat possessed only an average voice.  The dream that Cat might have anything better had been dashed a couple years earlier.

“Rose has all the skills and God-given gifts, that’s true,” Miriam said, “but there’s something more important than all that.”

Miriam searched for the words, as if they were scattered on the waters like lilies and she was mute until she saw the right one.

“You feel the music,” Miriam said in a conspiratorial near-whisper.  “The feeling makes all the difference.”

The look on Miriam’s face was something Cat had never forgotten.  Contrary to church doctrine, as it turned out, Cat had an actual self, and apparently, it was an extraordinary and beautiful one, as well.  She floated on a cloud for the longest time.  She took that comment and protected it in a glass case in her heart, even through her years as a drunk, and then into her past year of sobriety.  It was something she reached for when she was low.  When a man didn’t call her back after a first date or she failed to land the job she wanted or someone at work ran a head game on her, she would sit in front of the glass case and fill herself up with Miriam’s long-ago comment.

Now, with the street, Cat had a chance again.  Maybe now, the River of Fa La La would begin flowing through her again.  Maybe she could finally reclaim her self.