A Nightmare Unfolding

On Friday evening, I was performing a show at the Magic Castle when the dead body of the magician Daryl was discovered hanging backstage.

daryl11It suddenly became a crazy and nightmarish evening. Shows were closed down in two theatres and those crowds were set loose in the Castle with nothing to do. We had to redouble our efforts to entertain the 480+ guests and not tell them anything. We heard whispers from the guy who found the body. We didn’t know what to believe.

One guy shouted out during one of my shows that somebody was stabbed in the Castle, which was incorrect. Magicians were starting to cry. One magician friend started performing his show, and then six minutes in, found he couldn’t continue. Incorrect TMZ reports were appearing on guests’ phones and they were starting to realize something was wrong. They were amazingly understanding. The Castle shut down early, at 11:30, and I performed the last show there.

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The author standing in front of the Magic Castle in a happier time.

In the ’90s, Daryl was so clever, so articulate, so much the magician I wanted to be. This is the most tragic death I’ve ever experienced, and along with Ted Anneman and Chung Ling Soo, the most tragic magic death I’ve ever heard of.

[BTW, TMZ got it all wrong. They wrote that he was discovered in his underwear. I talked with the guy who found the body, and he was fully clothed. TMZ invents alternative facts. I won’t trust anything they write ever again. It’s astonishing how dishonest that is.]

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.

Lemons Into Lemonade

Unfortunately, this trip has thrown a lot of lemons our way.

On the flight over, we got stranded for five hours in Kafka’s Airport (aka Heathrow) and lost a full 24 hours of our trip, gone forever.

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A couple days later, we rented a car and I began driving on the left. I concentrated hard while driving, because not crashing into things is good.  Then when we turned in the car, they spotted a small scrape.

“I didn’t hit anything,” I said. “I would’ve felt that.”

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“We didn’t feel anything,” my girlfriend Claire said.

“Still, the contract you signed says that you’re responsible,” said the imbecilic Sixt representative.

I didn’t hit anything, and for that, I was charged $250.

“$250 is cheap,” the man said gently, as if we were getting a once-in-a-lifetime deal.

I had the feeling that he said that to everybody in that situation.

That afternoon, I started getting sick, and that evening while lecturing, I became progressively sicker, until at the end of the lecture, I just wanted to crawl under a warm rock.

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At the lecture, trying to make the best of things.  You can see a leprechaun in the left front.

Then yesterday, we spent nine hours on a train, and when we arrived at our friend’s place at 11 pm, she said the key would be under the flowerpot. We rummaged around for a half-hour in the rainy dark before we found it–under the flowerpot.

Today on a train, I accidentally dropped my camera and bent the lens. Will have to buy a new lens.

But still, there are things to enjoy.

Every so often, I turn to Claire, point to a cloud, and say, “See that cloud? That’s an Irish cloud!” Or ”Claire! We’re in England!”

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Irish clouds outside of Carlingford, framed by Irish countryside.

On Monday morning, I got up at 5 am and took a long walk through the Louth countryside, trying to make friends with sheep and roosters and swans, none of whom were having any of it.  Man did I have a great walk, though.

An Irish farmhouse at dawn

An Irish farmhouse at dawn

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A mama sheep torn between feeding and fleeing.

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In Ireland, there was the charming Irish accent, which at once makes me think of singing and leprechauns, separately, not together, because somehow, I don’t think I’d like to hear a leprechaun sing. (He probably wouldn’t take my request, which would be a combination of two songs: Randy Newman’s “Short People” and “Who Let the Dogs Out?” I would call it “Who Let the Short People Out?”)

Then there are all the extremely old buildings in every corner of the country, it seems, and all the castles small and large, and the Irish cemeteries with all their political and overtones.

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An Irish patriot who died in the GPO in 1916.  He was buried in Dundalk near the border with Northern Ireland, an Irish flag forever flying his colors.

An Irish patriot who died in the siege of the GPO in 1916, just before the birth of the Irish Free State.  He was buried in Dundalk near the border with Northern Ireland, an Irish flag forever flying his colors.  It was starting to rain.

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Then in Ireland, there’s that charming sense of Irish doom, which is hard to explain except in a kind of reticence—not reserve, which the English are famous for, but reticence, which comes from a different place—and which my friend Jack Wise says “stems from 800 years of political repression.”

And then, most of all, there are friendly strangers. On the train through Wales, we ran across an English family that was playing cards. I looked at Claire.

“You know what I’m thinking, don’t you?” I said.

“Yes, I do,” she said softly.

So I volunteered to do a magic trick for them, launched into a set, and for the rest of the ride, we had tour guides eager to make our trip the best ever. They hailed from Chester, which is a city built by the Romans when they ruled the wild tribes who lived in these isles. In the Dark Ages, Chester residents dug up the corpse of a revered forebear, St. Werburgh, to avoid descration by the invading Vikings, and reburied it in Staffordshire.

I have a feeling these Chester residents had never dug up a corpse, although you never know.  (I see a bit of sociopathy in the face of the guy on the left, below.)  Still, they loved my magic, and treated me quite nicely.  They thought they were riding the train with a big shot. Of course, I am. I’m not one of those suckers who worships gratitude, but I am one who worships turning lemons into lemonade. And turning strangers into tour guides fits that bill nicely.

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Today, we walked into historic Bradford on Avon, and when I say historic, I mean that the church was built in 1150, the weaver’s cottage we’re staying in was built in 1400, and things that were built after 1800 are considered too new to be worth talking about.

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While in the tourist office, I ended up doing a little magic for a pretty blonde, a crowd gathered, and suddenly, the head of the tourist office had offered me a gig performing at the local festival on Saturday. I’m still feeling a little under the weather, but if I feel up to it, I’ll take her up on it. After all, at the first opportunity, I’m all about making a little lemonade.

But there’s another aspect of lemonade that has sprung to mind, too.  When I was 28, I was engaged to a young horsewoman named Suzy.  She roped me into taking dressage lessons, and we had quite a good time at it, too.  I rode a huge white former California jumping champion who knew I wasn’t experienced, and actually threw me a couple times.  I shook it off.  I was resilient.  I got back on.  For our honeymoon, we planned to go to Ireland and ride across the country.  Suzy said they had property laws that allowed you to ride across people’s land at will, staying at B & Bs wherever we went.

“It’s been my dream since I was a little girl,” she said.

But Suzy’s mother Rebel broke us up.  I wasn’t a born-again Christian, so Rebel was insistent that I would be a bad influence on her daughter, which I probably would have.  It was a bad breakup, filled with screaming, taunts, cat shit left on my front door, and finally, years of wondering whether I had made the right decision.  Suzy had been so beautiful and so brilliant.  I still remember her curves, which were even more alluring when she was wearing a tight black dress.  Growing up, she had skipped two grades, and tended to make the most original and shocking jokes.  Once, while we were both driving on the freeway at 65 mph, she pulled up beside me, honked her horn, pulled up her blouse and flashed me.

Years later, I’m finally in Ireland.  Looking on the Internet, I see that Suzy has become such a devout charismatic that she has home-schooled her four children.  The schools are way too secular for her.

Being here in Ireland without Suzy was a reminder of the dream honeymoon we might have had.  It was sobering.  But considering what became of her, I would like to think that the engagement itself was the lemon.  I’d like to think that being here with Claire, the lovely, lukewarm-religious Claire, the Claire who would never go braless, much less flash me on the freeway, the Claire whose gentleness is a constant lesson for me and my aggressive daring, which I always think is the solution to everything but really isn’t, the Claire who doesn’t sleep well without my warm body beside her and with whom I’ve consorted for nearly 14 years now, and who…well, let’s just put it this way: Whenever I’ve thought about breaking up with her, it’s always seemed out of the question, because hurting her would tear me apart…I’d like to think that because of all that, Claire is the lemonade.

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Dublin Troo and Troo

I haven’t lectured to magicians in seven years, but have invented a lot of new tricks in that time.  In the late 1990s, I performed about 80 lectures all around the world, including in Australia, Hong Kong, Alaska, all up and down the East Coast, throughout the South, and through Texas, which is a country unto itself.  Oh yeah, don’t forget Ohio, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri.  And New Orleans, where I had in my audience a midget and a man who’d had a tracheotomy and asked questions through a voicebox.

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The lecture I did last evening was held at Cassidy’s Hotel in central Dublin, and my hosts were the unusually talented Dublin Society of Magicians.  When I looked out at the audience, I saw 45 smiling Irish faces, and when they asked questions, it was in that lovely Irish lilt that is so cute, I mean, even if the guy asking the question was a hulking bouncer type, the minute he opened his mouth and spoke, that musical accent made you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.  They say things like ting instead of thing, troo instead of through, and DRAW-hada instead of Drogheda.

This lecture coincided with the release of my new magic book, Notes from the Red Spot, which is a compilation of most of the tricks I’ve published so far, plus a few new ones that I’m excited about.  Red Spot can be bought online here: http://www.amazon.com/Notes-Red-Spot-Magic-Groves-ebook/dp/B00KJOCLEA/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1401878553&sr=8-1&keywords=notes+from+the+red+spot

I performed about 15 tricks and explained each and every one, and at the end, the guys posed for the Yikes photo below.

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Gremlins in London

Yesterday, gremlins were hopping all over us.  I hate gremlins.  If I killed one, would it be a hate crime?
Now I know how Kafka felt.  We were flying from Los Angeles to Dublin for a 2-week vacation.  Our plane arrived on time around noon at Heathrow and we staggered out of the plane and into the terminal.  Now, when you’ve been awake for 18 hours, you can get a little punchy.  I had taken a triple dose of an herbal sleep medicine, so my eyes felt like they were trying to go to sleep against my wishes.  My mother, my girlfriend Claire, and myself staggered out into the terminal.  A wheelchair was supposed to be waiting for us so that we could connect to the next flight, because my mother has severely arthritic hips, but there were three people in need of chairs and only two chairs there.  We were SOL.
“It’ll be 15 minutes before I can get another chair up here,” he said.
What do you do when plans change?  You become a hero and roll with the change.  So my mother walked a half-mile through her hip pain until we arrived at the nearest handicapped station.
When we arrived at the handicapped station, called Special Assistance, it was a horrific sight.  There was this one twentysomething guy at a counter surrounded by 20 or more handicapped people buzzing around him like crazed…handicapped people.  We had to wait 20 more minutes before he ordered a handler to wheel my mother and us to the bus to Terminal 5–the wrong terminal, which took us 30 minutes out of our way.  By the time we discovered our mistake, it was another 20 minutes, and then another 20 minutes to take the bus to the right terminal.

 

But by the time we got to the right terminal, the Special Assistance people there looked at us with pity.

 

“You’re going to miss your flight,” one said simply.

 

And he was right.  There was Customs to go through (we were just passing through the terminal, not buying an earl’s estate in Yorkshire!), Customs form to fill out (the airline had said that we didn’t have to fill it out because we were just on a layover!), and by that time, they had taken our luggage off the plane and the plane was in the air, baby, it was up up and away!

 

Normally, that would have been no problem.  Planes to Dublin aren’t like abortions in America, but like buses in New York City–frequent, not rare.  However, the competing carrier that goes to Dublin is Aer Lingus, and they were on strike for a day!  Of all the days to go on strike!  So all the seats to Dublin were taken until tomorrow.  We looked at each other in disbelief at our coincidental misfortune.  That gremlin was a leprechaun.

 

That’s when Special Assistance went into their incompetence dance.  Sometimes, I wonder if an evil dead relative is hanging around messing things up for me on certain days.  This was one of them.  At 3 pm, a short guy in a suit accepted responsibility and said they’d get us into a hotel in London and cover transportation, but it wasn’t until 6 pm that we got into the room, after waiting a total of six hours in the nine levels of airport hell.  I could go into detail about each incompetent person along the chain, but you get the idea.  One guy says we only have to wait a half-hour more, but he doesn’t show up for an hour.  Then another guy takes over and he doesn’t know what’s going on and has to call the first guy to get up to speed.  Then there’s another half-hour wait, and when the driver finally arrives, he has to get on the phone to the short guy for 15 minutes before he can get the message that we need to be driven to the hotel just a mile down the road.  There are companies that hire good people and companies that hire the worst people in any group.  Don’t know why they might do that.  Virgin Atlantic, our original airline, was the former.  Special Assistance was the latter.  Somewhere along the way, some guy put it this way:

“It’s run by a private company and paid for by the airport.  But it doesn’t make any money for them, so they’re always understaffed.  Plus, a lot of people from south Asian countries use it for their translation services even though they’re not physically handicapped.”

It brought to mind the horrible service I received from a K-Mart once, where everybody who worked there seemed to be the stupidest person I ever met.  I just had to put this horrible experience on the Internet, for everyone to see.

Warning: Don’t be handicapped in Heathrow Airport!

Doing the UK

This year, we travel to Ireland and England.  It’ll be a great time.  I will be lecturing to the Irish Society of Magicians in Dublin, and we’re also going to spend a couple days in County Louth, doing Carlingford and Warrenpoint and environs.

Then we ferry over to England, where we’ll probably hit Bath for a couple days.  Then we have a day to do something somewhere, we’re not sure what.  Then it’s on to London, where we’re staying at a B & B in Walthamstow.  Five days there, visiting the Magic Circle, the Tower, the British Museum, et al.  Then it’s the train and ferry back to Dublin, then fly out.

Any suggestions for our trip?

Potbanging Outside the Billionaire’s Party

Last night, I performed walkaround magic at a New Year’s Eve party in Corona del Mar, CA.  I was dressed in a new Kenneth Cole suit and a purple satin shirt and tie.  The event cost $1,000 per ticket. There were eight go-go dancers shimmying on platforms while rock music blared very very loudly.  At the party were doctors, lawyers, Donald Trump types, and at least one billionaire.  I wish I had pictures: Their astonished faces, their killer threads, their fabulous food, their coterie of waiters, waitresses, bartenders, personal assistants, et al.

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Strangely, there was a conservative Orange County congressman roaming amongst the go-go dancers.  The rich are different from you and I.  At one point, the manager came up and whispered in my ear.

“I want you to perform some great magic for the host,” she said.  “He’s in the other room on that side of the party.  He’s wearing a red bowtie.  Make sure he sees people having a good time.”

So I walked into that room and looked around.  There were four men wearing red bowties.  Okay.  Well, I just started working, which is to say, making people say, “Wow” and “That is so sick” and “That is some weird shit.”  All the bowtie guys saw the ripples I was making in the pond.  Twenty minutes later, a guy comes up and says, “Do some magic for him.”  I turn around and there’s another guy wearing a red bowtie.  I was in the middle of a trick for another guy, but this guy looked more important, so I read his mind and blew him out of the water.  Turned out that was the host, who Wikipedia describes as a hedge fund manager and philanthropist.

They didn’t let my girlfriend into the party with me, so she nestled into the cottage of a friend, Barbara.  They popped popcorn and watched a Diane Lane movie while their eyes became sleepy.  Barbara is actually a famous radio talk-show host who is a dear.  My girlfriend Claire teaches English in college.  It was their first extended time together, and they get along quite nicely, it seems.

At 11 pm, the fabulous party was getting pretty serious.  The music was pulsating at 110% of maximum volume and getting louder.  The crew was busy cleaning up the mess from the masses and offering more food and drink and smiles.  I had to get out of there, so I collected my check and then walked the three blocks back to Barbara’s.  Pacific Coast Highway was deader than Whitney Houston.  We watched Anderson Cooper (Claire used to call him Cooper Anderson) and Kathy Griffin on TV while waiting for the countdown.

“Would you like some Champagne?” Barbara asked.

“No thanks,” I said.  “There are going to be a lot of checkpoints out there tonight.  How about some Fiji water?”

At 11:59, we all stepped outside and waited in the dark for the first bang of fireworks that would tell us it was 2014.  It was chilly and quiet, and Barbara still had her lovely blue and green Christmas lights on the house, the cast of which made the front yard seem like an eerie hobbit light show.  It was a long, quiet moment.  Suddenly in the distance, we heard three quick firework bangs.  That was it.  We joined in, banging big spoons on big pans and whooping it up.

I kissed Claire.  It had been a good year.  I finished producing my marketing package.  I got a bad client out of my life.  I made a breakthrough in my sales techniques.  I finally published the novel I had been working on for six years.  I started this blog and published nearly every day.  Good things behind, good things ahead.

Your Father Is Here

In 2009, I visited my long-lost first cousin Mark.  During the course of a 4-hour visit, I did a little mindreading.

“I didn’t used to believe in that stuff,” he said.

“What made you believe?”

And that’s when he told me an extraordinary story.

Mark at age 12

Mark at age 12

About ten years ago, he went to the mall with his 8-year-old daughter.  It turned out that the mall was holding a fortuneteller’s convention. His daughter asked for a palm reading, and he reluctantly complied.

They sat down and the palmist took his daughter’s palm.  She spewed the usual generalized claptrap that encourages belief but says nothing specific, and Mark went along with it for his girl’s sake. When she was done, the fortuneteller asked Mark for his palm.

“Oh, I don’t believe in that kind of stuff,” he said.

“Come on, it won’t hurt,” she said, and grabbed his palm.

Immediately, though, her attitude changed and she dropped his palm.

“Oh, your father is here,” she said.

Richard Medrano

Mark’s father from many years ago.

By the 1980s, Mark’s father Richard had been overworking over a period of years at his job as a mechanic at Disneyland.  He never had time to rest.  He didn’t listen to anyone who told him to slow down.  My mother always talked about it with dread.  His wife complained that he wouldn’t listen to reason.

Then one day in 1987, he had a heart attack.  He wasn’t the kind of man who liked to go to the doctor, so he refused to go.  His wife pleaded, but he was adamant.

“It’s nothing,” he said.  “I’m okay.  What is a doctor going to do?”

Two weeks later, he was hit with another heart attack.  That was the end of him.  In the ensuing years, we’ve always considered it a great tragedy.

“He has a message for you,” the palmist told Mark.  “He says you’ve been worried that you weren’t there when he died, and you shouldn’t worry about that.”

That stopped Mark cold. Mark had been medically trained as an X-ray technician, and for years, he had indeed been haunted by one terrible idea.

If I’d been there, I could have saved him.

“Your two brothers are also here,” she said.

That puzzled me, because I’ve always thought of Mark as an only child.  In fact, he grew up an only child. But in fact, Mark reminded me that he had an older brother who lived for a few weeks and a younger brother who died in childbirth.

“Oh yeah, I seem to remember that,” I said.

“There was no way she could have faked that,” he said.  “It was a spur-of-the-moment decision to go to the mall.  Same thing with the decision to have our palms read.”

As a magician, I’ve done some thorough reading of fake psychic strategies, and trust me, no fake psychic can bluff her way through such a specific reading. You are instructed to stay away from specifics.

You sometimes think that you’d be further along in your career if you’d applied yourself more.

Then you look at their age, physical presentation, and attitude, and say general things arising from that.

But “Your father is here with your two brothers”?!  Perhaps his father was there.

I Can Always Make Her Smile

My mother loves movies, especially old ones.  She’s offended by curse words, love scenes, loud action, and bloody violence.  Bette Davis is just her speed.

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“That actress could do everything,” my mother says.  “She wasn’t afraid to look unattractive.  Just look at Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.”

“‘I’d kiss you, but I just washed my hair,'” I quoted.

“Yes, exactly.”

Mom spends lots of time watching TCM while she sews.  I’ve tried to expose her to modern classics.  In the ’70s, I took her to Annie Hall, which I had already seen in the theatre three times.  As you’ll recall, the movie starts off with Woody Allen’s narration.

“Ugh, is he going to talk all through the movie?” she said.

“Kind of.”

“I hate it when they talk through the movie.”

“It’s called narration, Mom.”

“I don’t like it when they talk even a little bit.”

Mom prefers old movies.  They address the era in which she was raised.  They talk her generational dialect.  She doesn’t worry as much as I do about credibility, naturalism, shooting on location, uninterrupted single shots, camera experiments, and other elements that have come into vogue since 1973.  She especially loves Gene Tierney, Joan Crawford, Burt Lancaster, Cary Grant, and Shirley Temple.

Donald took this photo of his new wife Sally on their honeymoon on Catalina island in 1951

My father took this photo of his new wife Sally on their honeymoon on Catalina island in 1951

My mother loathes a certain type of modern movie.  In 2012, her grandson was excited about Marvel’s The Avengers, and so when it hit the theatres, she took him to see it.

“It was too loud,” she complained.

A few months ago, I heard that the movie Ted was a delightful movie, so we took my mother to see that.  I’d heard it was about a grown man whose teddy bear is actually alive.  It sounded whimsical and delightful.  I had no idea that it would have so many cringe-inducing moments.  There was even a segment in which the teddy bear, who is portrayed as being alive, has teddy sex with a bleach-blonde floozy.  They show her bare high-heeled ankles and Ted’s face, and you hear the passionate grunting.  That was particularly embarrassing to see with your mother.

At some point, I undertook a quest to see movies with my mother that wouldn’t offend her.  It was difficult, because it got in the way of my own enjoyment.  Sitting there in a cinema with her, my experience of those movies changed.  It seemed that those movies went into my eyes, but before I enjoyed them, they were screened by a filter that asked the question: Is my mother going to like this?  This pre-screening spoiled the movie for me, and I tried to stop doing that.  But it was tough.  I love my mother.

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Twenty years ago, my mother started collecting videotapes.  By five years ago, I looked at her collection and knew I could improve it.  So I came over to her house, put in three hours of work, and alphabetized the whole thing.

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“Why did you do that?” she said while I was doing it.

“I’m alphabetizing.”

“Don’t do that.”

“I don’t mind putting in the work.”

“But I don’t want to you do that.  I know where everything is.”

“Trust me, it’ll be easier this way.  They’re sorted alphabetically.”

A week after I finished, she finally articulated why she disliked what I had done.

“I had to rearrange the whole thing,” she said.  “I couldn’t find any of my movies.  I arrange them by actor.  Because if I’m in a Tom Hanks mood, I go straight to the Tom Hanks section.  If I’m in a Sandra Bullock mood, I go to the Sandra Bullock section.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that when I was alphabetizing it?”

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My mother said she liked romantic comedies.  She liked light, whimsical movies that weren’t experimental in the least.  She liked Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and Meg Ryan.

“But not that one movie where Meg Ryan took off her clothes,” she said, referring to In the Cut.  “I don’t like it when they get vulgar like that.  Why did she have to do that?  What did she have to prove?”

“So you like tasteful movies,” I said, helpfully.

“Yes, but it’s more than that.”

“What do you mean?”

“I like movies that I can fall asleep to.”

It took a while for that to sink in.  I looked at her, trying hard to comprehend.

“You see, I’ll watch a movie in the afternoon on the sofa,” she said.  “I’ll stretch out on the sofa and turn the movie on with the remote.  Then after a while, I’ll fall asleep and take a nap.  But some movies are too loud.  I can’t fall asleep to them.  Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan movies, though, I can fall asleep to.”

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“Why don’t you just put on a DVD of white noise?” I said.  “Or the rainforest?  I mean, really, Mom.”

We laughed a lot about that one.

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Last night, we went to the multiplex and I bought tickets for Gravity 3D, which cost a pretty penny, believe me, $46 for three people.  I had been waiting weeks to take her to this one.  It seemed the perfect choice.  It starred Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, two of her favorites.  It wasn’t edgy or vulgar.  The reviews were stellar.

We sat down in the moviehouse, and when the movie was starting, I looked over at my mother and she had her eyes closed.  I shook her knee.  She opened her eyes.

“You must really like this movie,” I said.

“Why?” she said.

“You’re already falling asleep.”

She smiled.  I can’t always understand her, but I can always make her smile.

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