The Chaperone with Stars in Her Eyes

Last night, I was hired to perform magic at a high school prom, held at a local country club.  There were 1,000 or more, and they were Orange County kids, mostly white and Asian, middle class, nice.  The morning after, I’m thinking back on them, so many of whom seemed sweet to me.

The girls so proud of their fabulous dresses.

The teenage boy with gorgeous curly surfer hair, standing in line outside with his gorgeous girlfriend in the striking red dress, holding hands.  And you know every girl wants him and every boy wants her and they both know it.

The uncool kids dancing to the quaint jazz band rather than to the superloud house music.

The nerd, slouched and bespectacled, walking around stag, trying not to look lost and unsure what to do or who to ask to dance.

The kids there with same-sex partners, no harassment.

The other kids going stag, or in groups with other kids who didn’t have dates, trying to have a good time.

The brash girl with blue hair, coming off, like, “I’m not going to go through life getting lost in the crowd!”

The girl Alexis who had 35-year-old eyes, like she knew everything already, and she probably did.

The table of Asian kids freaking out en masse at every trick and amazement I performed, screaming “Whoaaaaaaa!” and begging me not to leave, just one more trick.

At one point, I leaned over to an adult chaperone my age, and whispered, “Are these kids like we were?” And she said, with a grin, “They’re better.”

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The Whole Damn Thing

The other evening at the Magic Castle, I performed for a lovely young couple from Perth, Australia.They had flown into Los Angeles for their honeymoon and were dressed to the nines to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience at the magical capital of the world.

They were both beaming.  She was a pretty and chatty blonde.  She seemed like the kind of woman who isn’t quite beautiful, but through highlights and makeup, has turned into a fair approximation of it.  Most importantly, though, I could see some intelligence peeking out from behind the mask.  He was on the short side with red cheeks and a good physique.  Peeking out from behind his mask, I caught a bit of an inferiority complex, but he was charming, nonetheless.  I did a couple tricks for them, including a romantic piece of magic that gave them a souvenir.

“This,” I told them, holding up their signed playing card with which I had accomplished the impossible, “will remind you of this moment, 50 years from now, and you’ll say to each other, ‘Honey, remember this? It’s from that time on our honeymoon when we went to that Magic Castle place.’”

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It was so sweet.

“But how did you do it?” the woman asked.

“A magician never tells,” I said. 

“But I just don’t understand.  It was two cards, and now it’s one….”

But then, all in a moment, it all came crashing down.

“Just stop talking,” the man said.

“What?” she said.

“Just stop talking. You make yourself sound like an idiot.”

It was an extraordinary moment in which I saw everything converging at once: love, marriage, honeymoon, and divorce, the whole damn thing, all in a single moment.

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.

A Moment to Be Afraid (part 7 of Magic Island)

This is part 7 of the article, “Magic Island.”  Read part 6 here.

The next day, we toured Iwner, a kastom village.  There, for an admission price, they show tourists the old ways.  It is a fascinating tour.  A ni-Vanuatu guide with a bare chest showed us around and described what life is like in this primitive village in the jungle.

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Over 85% of the vegetation around us is used for food, medicine, shelter, or in other ways, he told us.  A woman in a grass skirt gave us each shredded coconut wrapped in some kind of leaf, and although we hesitated, we finally ate it so as not to offend.

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 began performing a tribal dance.  When asked, I joined in, trying to mimic what they did, although I was always a second or two behind.  Over 300 people were stomping the dirt with their feet—one, two, three!—and you could feel the tremors in the ground.  They were asking the gods to bless the yam harvest, and the dust rose up in response.

Finally, when the dance was over, Belden asked the chief whether I could perform a show for the villagers, and he consented.  The entire tribe gathered around me, everyone from elders to fit young men to teenage girls to little children.

This was the moment to be afraid.  I was surrounded by black faces in war paint, people who believe in the old ways, people who dance to please the gods.  And I didn’t have J.K. Rowling writing the script to ensure a happy ending.

Roll2014Taking a deep breath, I performed the sponge balls, the trick that always seems most like real magic.  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 and slaughter them all.

Roll2015Then I performed some rope magic, a vanishing trick, and finally, a feat of magic that tends to freak out even skeptical Americans.  They loved it all.  Once again, I saw the familiar alternating current of excitement, then trepidation, excitement, then trepidation.

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When it was all over, I walked toward the Land Cruiser, and every ni-Vanuatu’s eyes were on me, and I felt what Copperfield must feel when walking down Park Avenue.  As we were driving away from Iwner, once again over bumpy dirt roads, heading back to our bungalows, Belden finally spoke.

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

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At Tanna International Airport, waiting in a crowd of ni-Vanuatu for the plane that will take me back to Port Vila, I saw a Mormon missionary, dressed in the familiar white shirt and tie, and short blond hair.  I struck up a conversation, and discovered he was from Utah.

“What do you think about the magic here in Vanuatu?” I asked.  “Is it real?”

“Most of it is just superstition and tricks,” he said.

“What do you mean, ‘most of it’?” I asked.

But he waltzed around my question, talking about kava, about sleight of hand, about naïve audiences.

Roll2018“But do you believe that some of it is, for example, the work of Satan?”

“I believe,” he said, looking me straight in the eye, “that Satan’s power is real, and that if you look for Satan, you will find him.”

I wondered, chatting amiably with this young man from the Utah technology tribe, how much difference there really was between his beliefs and those of the ni-Vanuatu.

(The final installment, part 8, can be read here.)

It Doesn’t Get Any Worse Than This

A couple years ago, a woman I’d never met asked if I could perform a motivational magic show for her university.

“Of course,” I said.

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“We’re having a holiday party for 300 of our employees,” Lori said.  “But we need it to have motivational content for it to be funded.”

“No problem.”

They were proposing to pay me an ungodly amount of money for a 30-minute show.  I mean, it was a huge amount that actually made my month go from subpar to phenomenal, and just thinking about the amount, I starting buying things in my head.  By the end of the day, the check was half spent.

If you think about it logically, doing this kind of show is no big deal.  If you have a magic show that works for you, as I do, an act that you’ve done several thousand times, as I have, and you know where the jokes are and how to tell them, and where the volume rises and where to hit the high notes, and how to choreograph it like some sleight-of-hand ballet, then it can be argued that the show runs on autopilot.  The motivational part was going to be a little more of a challenge, but hey, I used to be an international journalist with over 500 published articles on four continents, so how hard was that going to be?  I could tell a story.

The motivational story that I chose was my mother’s, which I have blogged about here.  It’s become quite popular on WordPress.  I poured a lot of passion into writing the motivational story, and then rehearsing it, and then fitting it seamlessly into the context of the magic show.

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Sally (R) around the time when she faced the biggest challenge of her life.

As the performance date drew near, however, a part of me began to feel a little nervous.  The apprehensiveness wasn’t based on logic, but instead, on how much money was riding on it.  It was like the money was sitting on top of me.  The more I thought about it, the more pressure I felt.

I began to think about all the things that could go wrong.

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Insomnia was one of those things.  For many years, insomnia had been my worst enemy, and like a bum knee, it still sometimes flared up.  As a magician, you keep late hours and that can screw up your circadian rhythms.  Not only that, but my call time was 9 am, meaning I’d have to get up at 6 am, an ungodly hour for an insomniac.  That meant I would have to hurry in the morning.  I don’t like to hurry.  I don’t like to worry.  I like to relax before a show.  It makes me more nervous, which in turn makes me more nervous, which in turn makes me more nervous, and so on.

And then there was the problem of traffic.  The show was taking place in my own Southern California, and the morning commute from my house to that university is, to put it mildly, an extreme sport.

No problem.  I’d book a hotel room down the street from the theatre.

But that made me nervous, too.  It occurred to me that people don’t always sleep well in new surroundings.  Insomnia could flare up simply because I wasn’t comfortable.  So I rented the room for two nights, just to make doubly sure.

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What were you thinking?

There’s a built-in problem in answering this simple question.  It’s hard to tell people what you were thinking at any particular time, because so many thoughts run through your head at any particular moment.  There were confident thoughts, insecure thoughts, bombastic thoughts, sexual thoughts, renegade thoughts.  The mind is like a radio constantly being tuned to different channels.  Sometimes, it seems that there are so many people inside of us–Spock, Id, Loki, Genghis, Milquetoast, and so many others–each fighting to say his own truth.  The same was true of me before this big show, but in thinking back and writing about what happened here, I must confess that I’m focusing mostly on my scared and anxious self.

I took steps to control my anxiety.

Two nights before the event, I checked into the hotel.  Then, the day before the performance, I started taking precautions to make sure I’d get a good night’s sleep.  Good eating, good exercise, no caffeine.  That night, I climbed into bed and switched off the light.  Closed my eyes.

The art of getting to sleep, as everyone knows, is in not trying.  You lie down and let your body do what comes naturally.  You sink into oblivion.  You just let it happen.

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Nothing.

No need to panic, I told myself.

I had taken precautions.  On the nightstand was a Chinese herbal sleeping formula called Suan Zao Ren that I had often found helpful.  I took a couple capsules.  I took a few deep breaths, then laid down and tried to not try to get to sleep again.

After an hour, still nothing.

No need to panic, I told myself.

I reached onto the nightstand and took a second dose of Suan Zao Ren.  I believe in Chinese medicine.  It heals the body in a natural way rather than in a brutal pharmaceutical way.  There are fewer side effects.  I laid back and waited for the medicine to take effect.

Still nothing.

It occurred to me that there must be an underlying layer of anxiety that was keeping me awake.

I tried not to think about what time it was, although it was inevitable that I would.  I judged midnight as Doom Hour, because if I got to sleep after midnight, I would be getting less than six hours of sleep.  Normally, six hours is the least amount of sleep I can get and still feel optimal.  Anything less than that and I feel like I’m on some sort of drug that makes me feel punchy and impaired.

So I took a couple more Suan Zao Ren and took another stab at sleep.  By this time, I was trying hard not to try hard.  My anxiety was rising against all my best efforts.  I kept my eyes closed and tried to sink into the bed, the pillow, the clean white sheets.

Still nothing, and the nothing went on for a long time.

Finally, I looked at the clock.  It was 1 am and it seemed like I had passed the fateful window of opportunity for going to sleep.  I took a deep breath.  It seemed that I was in uncharted territory, like the forbidden Romulan zone or walking into the forest outside the gates of Jamestown in 1605.  I counted the hours till 6 am and dreaded doing a show on only five hours sleep.  I imagined oversleeping.  I imagined slurring my words.  I imagined forgetting things.  I imagined the worst.  I took two more Suan Zao Ren and started taking a liquid I’d bought called SLP that was supposed to make you sleepy.

By 2 am, the lights were out and I had my eyes closed, but the anxiety was still there.  I took another couple doses of Suan Zao Ren and SLP and wondered what constituted an overdose.  I imagined the headlines: MAGICIAN SUICIDE: OVERDOSES ON CHINESE MEDICINE BEFORE SHOW.  NO SUICIDE NOTE.  I wiped those thoughts from my mind and took a few deep breaths.  I watched a bit of television, hoping that television lull me into the netherworld.  Finally, I turned off the lights and closed my eyes once again.

You can do this, I said to myself, my eyes closed.  Remember, you can do anything.  You’ve proven that to yourself before.

By 4 am, my mind was roiling with apocalypse.  Oh God, I couldn’t stay awake all night.  I hadn’t done that since college.  Something terrible would surely happen.  I tried and tried and tried and tried and tried and tried to will myself to sleep, but of course, that’s not how sleep works, it must simply land upon you like falling snowflakes on endless Kansas wheatfields.

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I tried a different tack.

Well, the very worst thing has happened, I said to myself.  You can relax now.  It doesn’t get any worse than this, and you’re not dead.  So calm down.

But still I didn’t.

By 6 am, the alarm clock rang.  I dragged myself out of bed, feeling an overwhelming fatigue in my bones.  I hadn’t caught a wink of sleep all night.  I took a deep breath and winced at the bright sunlight.

You can do this, I thought to myself.  You can do anything.

I arrived at the venue, which was a huge, lovely theatre on campus, and by 9 am, I was all set up and waiting for my cue behind the curtain. Before I went on, Lori came up to me.

“The president of the university is in the audience,” she said.

“Oh, nice,” I said.

I closed my eyes.

It keeps getting worse and worse!

The pressure was at a fever pitch.  On the other side of the curtain, 300 people plus one bigwig were waiting expectantly in their seats.  Above myself, it seemed that Loki was hovering, bemused, arms crossed, eager to see what strange and horrific things might happen.  And I waited there, breathing deeply, saying over and over again, It’s all right.  Everything will be fine.  Just do it.

The sound man hit my music and I made my entrance, but when I reached centerstage, I stopped cold.  I just stood there.  It was a very long moment.

“I’m just waiting for the lights,” I finally said into my microphone.

The sound man, a young man with bedhead who, when I’d met him at 7:10 am, had seemed even sleepier than I was, probably because he’d done the sound engineering at some techno club the night before and had then done ecstasy in some skank’s crash pad till 6 am, had forgotten to turn on the damned spotlights.  As a result, anything I did in front of these 300 people would not be seen.  If you can’t see it, remember, it’s not magic.  I said what I said in a kind of CYA moment, trying to make it clear to Lori that this damned screwup wasn’t my fault!  Thinking back, it was a moment of incredible clarity and quick thinking, and boded well for the rest of the show.

Finally, after a few long moments, the lights went on and I started my show.  This is what the show looked like.

When the final applause came and I pulled my magic table behind the curtain, I felt an incredible sense of relief.  I wasn’t dead.  I hadn’t passed out onstage.  I hadn’t forgotten my entire script.  It seemed like I had snatched victory from the jaws of Satan–but still, you can never be sure.  There had been little disappointments, as there are in every performance.  I had slurred my words during certain bits.  I had delivered a joke twice.  I didn’t know if people could detect the telltale dark circles under my eyes.  So I stood backstage and waited patiently until Lori swept backstage.  It seemed like she had a cloud of energy around her.

Great job!” she enthused.

And then she was gone.

I tried to find a few moments to shut my eyes, but there was so much to deal with.  I had to deal with props, mainly, and there was no place to lay down.  They had also contracted for me to perform an hour of walkaround at noon, and I swear, that took 250% of the energy I thought I had left in me.  My voice was getting hoarse and had nearly become useless, but nearly is not the same as completely, and I was able to fake it and croak out an hour’s worth of magic and humor.  By 2 pm, I was ready to drive home.

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That night, I went to bed and slept for 12 hours.  And the next morning, I realized three things:

  1. Missing a night’s sleep will not kill me.
  2. What I thought was a 100% effort is quite far from the effort I can actually put forth.
  3. There’s no need to worry about anything, really, and I mean anything, because whatever challenge is placed before me, dammit, I can deal with it.  So shut up and just do it.