Issue 127 |
Summer 2015

First Loves: A Plan B Essay

My career as a kid magician reached its height in eighth grade in the Eckstein Middle School Talent Show. I’d gone from performing in church basements and private homes to the cavernous auditorium at the heart of our school, with its banks of colored lights, its gargantuan raked balcony, and its rows of fold-down wooden seats. The previous year, I had built my own illusions, making Charie Vathanaprida appear from an empty box, levitating Karen Sollek in the middle of the stage, and vanishing myself from behind a white cloth—only to reappear in the very center of the audience, balanced on the armrests of a chair. The girls around me all screamed. It was as if I’d walked through the screen of our television to enter the TV magic shows I lived for.

In eighth grade, I planned to go further. I wanted the new act to be darker, more somber, more serious. More like a work of art. Out went the music from adventure film soundtracks, in came Dead Can Dance, Depeche Mode, Pink Floyd. I rehearsed on the stage with my hand-picked assistants, getting them out of class with the help of the Vice Principal. (Mr. Salvino liked my magic so much he supplied me with my own hall passes, gave me the key to the storage cage, and insisted on introducing me in the show.) As the great day approached, my mother sent a press release to the local stations. I dreamed I might make the evening news.

Magic was my first love—before music, before books, before writing. At Meadowbrook Co-op Preschool, near our home in north Seattle, I happened to see a magician do a trick with colored scarves. He stuffed one inside the other, waved his hands, said some words, and revealed that the scarf had vanished. The preschoolers squealed their amazement. I was convinced, however, he had pulled it through a hole, and I spent the next several weeks raiding my mother’s sewing drawers. The fabric that worked best was a blue translucent rayon that would seem to float if you threw it in the air. Its weave was so loose you could make a hole anywhere. I opened one off-center in the first of my two “scarves,” where I could work the second one through it by shoving it with my finger. Sometimes the fabric got caught and I had to loosen my fist, revealing in the process the scarf’s hiding place. My parents weren’t too impressed, but at Christmas that year I found magic sets among the presents beneath the tree. My interest grew from there.

One of my favorite tricks was the so-called Chinese Linking Rings, which actually comes from Europe. Almost everyone has seen it somewhere: eight metal rings join together and interpenetrate, forming pairs, chains, and geometric shapes. I can still remember my delight, before I learned the secret, at watching the gleaming rings seem to melt through one another in the hands of Seattle’s myriad magicians. In fourth grade, on a family trip to San Francisco, I bought my first set at the “World of the Unexplained” magic shop on Fisherman’s Wharf. (The shop, like many others, has long since disappeared.) The young demonstrator behind the counter didn’t want me to buy it. “You’ll be disappointed, kid, I promise,” he said. I bought it anyway.

Back in the hotel, after the disappointment, I began studying the routine he had given me with the trick, a series of typed notes and drawings on blue paper, folded in half to form a little booklet. I still have it. It was my first full routine, and I annotated several pages with early attempts at cursive. Already I was making changes and adding bits of “patter” that I’d picked up from magicians I’d seen. “Ladies and gentlemen,” I told myself to say, “here I have eight solid rings.” Not very original, but it got the thing started.

The biggest change I made was the addition of “figures,” different shapes I could form with four or more rings—a flower, a globe, a waterfall. Some experts, I learned, didn’t see them as real magic. In his textbook Rings in Your Fingers, Dariel Fitzkee proclaimed no taste for them at all: “Without benefit of wedlock, this illegimate [sic] child of art gone psychopathic and magic with delirium tremens has somehow crept into The Chinese Linking Rings.” I thought, however, that they were pretty. I selected my favorites and found a place in the routine where I could slip them in more or less logically (if such things can be said to have logic). The rings featured in the shows that I performed at church potlucks, company picnics, school assemblies, and family gatherings. Soon I had earned enough to purchase a larger set, with more durable and professional-looking rings. While other tricks came and went, depending on the venue, the rings held their place in my shows.

That is, until I hit middle school. There, in place of pretty, I gave spectacle center stage, with flash pots, fog machines, and plenty of teen angst. For the act in eighth grade, after Mr. Salvino’s introduction, I cut myself in half, removing a chunk of my middle without the benefit of a box. Then I performed what I hoped would be the highlight of the whole talent show: an escape in the style of Houdini. My assistants covered my eyes with bandages and bound my hands, strapping me to an electrocution device in an upright curtained cabinet. Karen Sollek explained the details through the loudspeakers: I had ninety seconds to escape or get fried. (By this point, I no longer spoke in my acts, doing everything instead to music. “From where I lie,” went the lyrics we played for the escape, “I want to die, I want to live, I want to die.”)

Of course, the effect was rigged. As the tension in the auditorium ratcheted upward, the device went off prematurely. Sparks flew from the timer, lights flashed overhead, Charie Vathanaprida fainted to the floor, and red smoke rose in the air. I could hear classmates in the audience scream. But when Opokua Oduro brought up the lights, and Eli Semke, Andy Chaffin, and Danny Zebelman opened the cabinet, everyone saw that it was empty. Then, as before, I appeared in the audience, but this time in a new change of clothes. It was even better than the year before.

Or so I thought. After the performance, as I congratulated my assistants, some friends approached me from the wings. “Caitlin is crying,” they said. “She’s in the corner.” Caitlin Milner was the first person to ever ask me to a dance, a heavy-set and sensual and spirited young woman. Now she was crumpled near the curtains.

“Caitlin?” I asked, approaching.

She stood up with some effort and accepted a hug, her arms and hands still shaking. “I thought you had died,” she said. “I thought you got killed. Never, ever, do that again.”

And like that, my euphoria vanished. I’d gone too far. At the encore for family and friends that evening, I could hardly bear to go through the motions. What had once seemed like my life’s highest aim and purpose now felt fraudulent, hollow, false.

I can’t blame either Caitlin or my angst-ridden act for the end of my childhood career. In a way, it had already ended. Adolescence was now turning my mind to other things: schoolwork, music, preparing for college, the tumult of coming out as gay. I was also growing painfully aware of the ecological and social turmoil I could see around me. Doing magic shows began to feel like a previous existence, a little boy’s hobby, nothing more. It wasn’t serious enough, wasn’t useful in the world. For over a decade, I gave it no thought.

Then my sister Emily surprised me with an invitation. I had moved to Vashon Island, just outside Seattle, where I was living on a farm, working for food and board, memorizing poetry, and trying to write about my years living in south India. Emily, who’d moved to Vashon for reasons of her own, managed the island’s farmers market and wanted me to perform for their Harvest Fair. It wasn’t at all what I’d moved there to do, but I figured the extra money couldn’t hurt. Maybe it could even support my writing in the winter.

I unpacked my tricks from their old cardboard boxes, fashioned a short show, and made some new business cards, just in case. At the Harvest Fair itself, the performance went well enough, kids watching from the grass, parents standing with crossed arms along the edges. I could still manage to surprise them with a few of my tricks and even introduced a new set of magic words: “ZUcchini, ZUcchini, TROMbocchini!” At the close of the show, I brought out my linking rings, the patter coming back to me as if I’d never stopped doing it. But what had worked for a child of seven or eight didn’t work as well for an adult. I could no longer count on the cute factor. When I said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, I have eight solid rings,” I could almost hear people thinking, “Why does he have to say they’re solid?”

And although I did get some bookings from the show, they were hardly enough for me to rely on. An apprentice doesn’t get the luxury of daily pay.

But several years later, my friend Merna Hecht, a poet and storyteller working in the schools, made another unexpected invitation. In one of her classes of fifth graders in Seattle, she’d discovered an aspiring magician. Could I come perform for them on her last day? She could pay me, she explained, a little, not much, but it would mean so much to her students. Without giving it much thought, I said yes.

But as I prepared on late winter afternoons, a new possibility occurred to me: why not combine magic with my apprenticeship to poetry? Instead of doing tricks the way I’d done them as a child, I could use them as metaphors for the magic of words, for the ways they return us to ourselves. Instead of my old patter, I could share poems I’d come to love. Maybe, as my partner, David, repeatedly insisted, I could even write a few of them myself.

I decided to start with the rings. And it’s here I saw that the “figures” of my childhood might serve to make the effect more meaningful. The rings, as circles, the oldest of symbols, might stand for the ways that stories, poems, and songs do not really end when they end. Instead, they continue in unending patterns that return us, repeatedly, to origins. Song links with song, story links with story; together they form figures in our hearts and our minds. So I wrote a little poem to accompany the figures, weaving it between the flowers and falling waters. “Rings of Song,” I called it. The effect and its poem culminate in a single long chain, “where all that we’ve learned / and all we’ve become / join in one chorus / with the moon and the sun.” It might not be a masterpiece, but it’s memorable. Beyond that, it’s uniquely my own.

As a child, I had aped other performers and magicians, copying their patter, their persona. Many of them had done the same thing themselves, carrying on the same jokes, repeating the same bits, doing the same tricks time after time. It comes with the territory, I suppose. But now I am learning to strip things away that properly belong to others: phrases, assumptions, old habits.

This past spring I premiered a new show, not for schools or families, but for adults—By Heart: A Celebration of Words, Magic, and Memory. In it I tell the story of how living in south India and learning the Tamil language led me, at last, to love poetry—after years of being mystified by the way it was taught in school. I describe how I learned to hear the music of words by learning certain poems by heart. And I share how these poems brought me in turn to meeting my beloved and life partner, David. This time the show moved its audience to tears, not out of fear or anger, but joy.

And at the heart of the piece, my old rings make their appearance, only now they are wedding rings, borrowed from the audience, to speak about the words that we give to each other, the promises we make visible with deeds.

I take the two rings, bring them together, and hold them for everyone to see. “Saying our vows and then giving our rings is a way of showing what cannot be seen, the word that we say in our hearts. Yes—yes—yes,” I say. “Yes to the pleasures, yes to the pains, yes to the whole beyond pleasure and pain, that joins us to everyone everywhere.”

And the wedding rings link as the words come together, joining not only the words and the deeds, but the boy I once was, and the man I am now, and the things we want to say and sing.

Thomas H. Pruiksma is a poet, magician, writer, translator, teacher, musician, and lover of life. His books include Give, Eat, and Live: Poems of Avvaiyar; Body and Earth: Notes from a Conversation (with the artist C. F. John); and A Feast for the Tongue (with the Tamil scholar Dr. K. V. Ramakoti). He lives on Vashon Island, Washington, with his partner, David Mielke.