Monday, November 7, 2016

And Now, For My Next Trick

I’ve been performing magic longer than I’ve been dating or driving. I am not alone: even in the mid-‘80s, when magic was far from the relatively mainstream “thing” it has since become, the arcane arts attracted their fair share of adepts. Back then, of course, one learned from books: teaching DVDs were but a dream, and DropBox videos would lay dormant for two more decades.
Gatherings proved equally problematic in those pre-Internet times. Whereas nowadays each and every geek can reach dedicated online fora—no matter the subject matter—in olden days, magicians were only afforded two avenues. The first was a handful of select clubs (such as the fabled Magic Castle in California) where a personal invitation was the only thing that could get you in; not the most realistic prospect for a budding legerdemain. But option 2, despite its more accessible trappings, was no less intimidating.
I’m talking about the magic shop.

Entering one of those special lairs was a sort of test. The location of magic shops was not kept secret, nor was a password or special handshake required to gain access to the premises. But the minute you walked in, you knew you were being judged. Evaluated. Weighed. Were you the tourist, wandering in as you might any other strangely inviting shop? Or perhaps the casual performer, looking for a new self-working trick to have fun with friends and coworkers? Or maybe, just maybe, you were the serious student, questing for the next move to add to your arsenal, the missing tool from your box, the final feather in your cap. Whoever you happened to be, you were welcome in there, and the old wizard tending shop would see to your particular needs.

I’ve always loved those exotic places, but it took me a while to grasp the exact reason. Many other establishments sold items I was excited about. Why did magic shops hold me spellbound in that regard? It eventually dawned on me that these surroundings made me feel like a kid all over again. Everywhere I looked, amazement waited, barely contained. A new mystery to solve, a new world to explore, a new question to answer… And I know it’s precisely what keeps calling to me, after all those years.

Over the course of my magical studies, I’ve come across quite the array of spectators. I know all the types: the easy-going guy who just enjoys the show, the girl who won’t stop screaming in excitement, the broody kid who wants you to fail, the know-it-all who calls the shots in advance, the guy who feels insulted because he can’t comprehend what he’s seeing, the pleased grandfather who wears a smile as big as his hat, the grandmother with a hand to her chest who looks like she’s about to faint, the alpha male who fumes at seeing his girlfriend melt at your fingertips—it takes all kinds. But I have to say that the vast majority of spectators are on the magician’s side and genuinely want the experiment to succeed: they understand it’s a little collaborative lie we’re telling ourselves, and that it functions best when everyone is onboard.
Similarly, I’ve encountered a wild variety of magicians, from the smug performer who assumes an air of superiority at being the only one in the room with any knowledge of what’s really going on (or so he likes to think), to the shy illusionist who almost apologizes when something out of the ordinary happens (which it’s supposed to!). Again, I’m happy to report that most magicians are a friendly bunch whose only desire is to entertain in a mystifying way.

To my absolute delight, I have found myself performing in several different settings. In a darkened corner at a fundraiser for a friend’s theater project (where a passerby ripped the deck out of my hands, looked at one of the pasteboards and shuffled it back in with the others, before handing the whole mess back to me and daring me to find his card); on a bumpy cab ride en route to Heathrow airport (during which bad lighting conditions both helped and hindered everything I did); at a large wedding in San Francisco (a completely improvised affair at the request of the groom, and one which was met with such enthusiasm that it derailed the proceedings and earned me the eternal wrath of the wedding planner); as part of actual magic shows (it does happen!); in the middle of an open-air market in Tunisia (where I was dragged from one stall to the next—with live chickens flying and clucking out of the way—so that I could repeat my demonstration for a friend or a relative); in multitudes of friends and family gatherings; and so on.

Now there is no denying that I enjoy the art of magic as a whole, but close-up magic holds a special place in my heart—and my hands. To me, magic has always been about the connection with spectators, and there’s no better way to connect with them then a close-up performance. The impossible happens right under the onlookers’ noses, sometimes directly into their hands: they are part of the event in a very personal way. I have specialized in card manipulation, always with a completely ungaffed deck: no shenanigans, no secret thing added or taken away, no special cards. Pure manipulation and misdirection. Not because I look down on special apparatuses—many of which are incredibly clever and allow for mindboggling miracles—but because I like to use a borrowed deck of cards, or else give mine away after I’m done. People actually enjoy this: their cards have gone through “something special,” and/or they walk away with a magical souvenir most of them will cherish for years to come.

So what does all of this add up to? The simple fact, I guess, that people from all walks of life, in all sorts of situations, will usually react the same way when presented with an entertaining demonstration that they can’t possibly explain. Their brains will look for a solution in column A, then in column B, maybe in column C (where all the clutter accumulates), and realize there’s none to be found. What they’re witnessing can’t be filed anywhere. And at that moment, that truly magical instant, their mouths will part in a toddler’s grin and their eyes will light up like those of an infant witnessing the world for the first time. Something ethereal will emanate from their features, something profound and beautiful. It’s there for just a second, but it (almost) never fails to show up. No matter where you are in the world, no matter whom you’re performing for. It’s there.
And I am hopelessly addicted to that unique something, that primordial look in their eyes. Like a vampire on the prowl for human blood, I keep performing magic to stimulate that response, so that I may quench my special kind of thirst, if only for a little while.
(At the same time I feel a bit guilty because everyone is busy looking at me: I’m the only one who gets to look back at all of them and take in that luminous glory.)

Living legend Paul Harris often refers to magic as “the art of astonishment,” a phrase that sings in its exactness. People are not just puzzled: they are SO puzzled that they revert to a state when everything was still new and full of wonder.

So the next time you see a magician at work, sacrifice your own enjoyment for a moment and look at the person next to you—especially towards the end of a trick. That is where the true magic happens.

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