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5—The Pink Monkey

Tethered to the flatbed truck rounding the corner was a three-story-tall pink-vinyl King Kong bobbing away on a helium high. At the four corners of the flatbed were floodlights aimed upward at the pink monkey to bring tidings of the Grand Opening of the new Rebel Gas Station and Mini Mart.

As the flatbed angled its way into the parking area behind the new gas station and mini mart, I rolled down the window of my pickup and called to the hard hat, “Isn’t there some kind of zoning law against pink monkeys?”
“You’re in Las Vegas, babe,” he shouted back.

Not for long, big boy, I shrieked at him in my mind, after which I whipped out the assault rifle from my imagination and blew off his hard hat and the hard hats of his hard-hatted buddies. As they fled the site, I turned my weapon on the environmental atrocity. As the pink monkey fizzled to the ground, I sped off in my trusty Toyota, never to be seen again in the town of cards...

4—The Arrival of the Big Yellow Machines

I was fifteen, and it was love at first sight of the desert. Unlike the industrial waters of the Monongahela flowing past the Western Pennsylvania mill town where I grew up, the rivers of the Desert Southwest ran green and wild. The canyon walls wept waterfalls, and maidenhair ferns grew out of the red sandstone cliffs amidst hanging gardens of red, yellow, and blue columbine. At night, silver deer walked out of tall silver grass and down to the rivers of moonlight. But it was in Zion Canyon when I looked up at the great white walls with their crimson stains that I first thought, yes, you can get blood from a stone. The poet in me stirred, and I began to believe in a kind of possibility that never existed for me in the classroom.

When finally I moved to the desert as a teacher in 1981, I was thirty-nine. Las Vegas was still just a gaudy strip down the middle of the valley. And every day after work, I would ride my bike out into the wide-open space of the desert. This space was filled with a stillness that absorbed all the bureaucratic absurdities that threatened to define my day. In the desert, I experienced a heat like no human passion I’d ever known. The danger was exquisite and immense as the bone-dry air wanted every bit of me, every nuance of flesh, every ounce of sweat, every tear, every intimacy of mind. It was a desire transcending all illusion. And there was no mercy so sweet as the sweet sage heat that filled the desert after a rain. What the desert gave to me, I aspired to give through my teaching. 

The same year I won my big teaching award, developers began turning the desert into America’s fastest sprawling city. 

3—Nothing Up My Sleeve

The magic I experienced as a high-school English teacher was not immediate. It came to me only after I realized that when my students complained that a writing assignment was stupid or boring, this was merely a cover for their fear of failure. To help them gain confidence, I would invite the class to assign me a seemingly impossible topic. Then with their assistance, I would model the organizational process on the board. I always began by shaking out my cuffs while stepping nimbly from side to side. “See here, my friends,” I would say, “there’s nothing up either sleeve...writing an essay is not just takes practice, reflection, and planning.” Then we’d work together until an outline took shape almost like, well, magic and understanding lit up their eyes.

In the early eighties, school-district administrators gave me a big award for my method of teaching writing as a problem-solving strategy. School officials then paid me to present workshops on my method to teachers throughout my district and state. Several years later, my students used what I’d taught them to end all the gang activity in our inner-city school, thus proving that it really is possible to change the system. What I’d failed to understand was that the people in charge didn’t want the system to change. The system worked quite well for them. All this became apparent when the principal squelched the student effort and did so in a way that made it appear that I’d abandoned the effort. 

In 1993, the National Council of Teachers of English published Home of the Wildcats, a book that I wrote to show how the education system stifles the creativity of teachers and students. Following a favorable review in the local paper, school officials suddenly discovered a technicality in a leave I’d taken and  POOF!  my twenty-three-year career was gone....

2—The Vanishing Bird Cage

If I had to pinpoint the exact moment I began to believe in magic, it would be that day back in 1949 when my parents took me to see Blackstone the Magician at the old Nixon Theater in Pittsburgh.

I was seven and expecting someone like the man with the wrinkled suit and top hat at my   friend’s birthday party. He stood behind a table and did tricks with cards and scarves and paper flowers. Then for his big ending, he made a rabbit disappear from his hat, which seemed very magical until we went into the dining room for cake, and I saw the rabbit in a black pouch hanging off the back of his table. 

Blackstone, however, was like magic itself. He came striding onto the stage in a black tuxedo with a bright white shirt and tie and a great shock of wizardly white hair. He greeted the audience in a large friendly voice. Then with his mustache curving up like a sly smile, he removed his white gloves, threw them up in the air, and they turned into a dove.

Window Card

Cover of Genii (1957)
The Floating Light Bulb

Blackstone didn’t work behind a table to hide his magic. So it was both wonderful and mysterious when he put a torn ribbon back together, sent a handkerchief dancing across the stage, lit up a bulb without a plug, and made a woman float in the air. But even when he strapped a woman face down on a table and ran a whirring round metal saw through her without causing a scratch, I knew it was all like the rabbit in the pouch. Once you knew the secret to the trick, there was no such thing as magic. Or so I thought until I became part of it....

1—Who's That Knocking At My Door?

The magical adventure that lies before you began shortly after 9 a.m. on Thursday, May 21, 1999. I’d just moved from Las Vegas to an apartment in a drafty old beach house on the northern coast of Oregon. And what a great apartment it was with its wall of windows looking out over Netarts Bay at the Pacific. 

                                                         Photo: Walter Van Campen

It was a sunny blue day and while sipping my coffee, I stood at the window watched as the blue sea broke against the far side of the spit and spewed up tiny rainbows in the wispy white spray.

“So what do you think of the place?” I asked my two longtime feline companions—

a bossy tortoise shell named cd, 
short for civil disobedience, 

      and her sidekick, an anxious little tuxedo 
named MITTS, short for MITTStical....