Twenty years ago, I got a mentor. I was delighted to have this particular mentor. Peter is a fabulous magician, and it was a pleasure to be around him. He performed at a couple of restaurants every week, and I would be there every week, too. He would perform for guests at the tables for three hours, every so often visiting my table, chatting about this or that, and I would hang on his every word. Then he would be off to entertain another table. I was a beginner and he was my beacon.
“Peter made a mistake tonight,” I said.
“Aughhhhhhhhhhhh!” my friend yelled.
Although I came up through the world of kids’ birthday parties, Peter came up through the world of international magic competitions. (For some examples of competition acts, see this, this, and this.) In that world, you must work up a 10-minute act, and if you exceed that time limit, you’re disqualified. That’s especially difficult, given the interruptions that invariably come up. The audience might laugh. They might applaud. But Peter consistently came out within ten seconds short of the 10-minute limit.
His secret? He practiced all the time. He thought about his act all the time. Now that was a language I spoke: excess. I’m nothing if not excessive in my work ethic. In addition, Peter had thought out every aspect of his performance in minute detail, even graphing various elements that any other magician would never think to graph.
For example, Peter graphed out how the laugh for a typical joke might look:
As you can see, a typical laugh is a sudden expostulation. It hits a peak and then drops off quickly. A typical applause, on the other hand, rises quickly but then may linger for a while at its peak before heading back down more gradually.
For me, someone who was just starting out in the art of deception, I felt honored that Peter would tell me about this. Granted, these were only bits of wisdom that he imparted while he was packing up his case, getting ready to go home to his wife, and he rarely lingered long after his shift. But it felt like I was learning at the feet of the master, like an actor learning technique from Laurence Olivier over Scotch late one evening.
I wasn’t his friend, though. More his disciple, his fan, his servant. I never thought I’d be a friend. For one thing, he was so piously religious and I’m not. He was corny and I’m not. He was married and I wasn’t. But once, Peter surprised me.
“As an exercise, the pastor asked us to think of our best friends,” Peter said. “And you know, I think you’re it.”
The feeling rushed through me like a drug.
I was the best friend of a god.
Over the next week, I tried to digest it, but one thing continually bothered me: I didn’t feel like Peter’s best friend. I never got together with him outside of the restaurant. He never called me; I called him. I had met his wife maybe twice, and had never said even a word to his children. But I was willing to call myself Peter’s best friend, sure, that’s great, whatever.
After eight years of diligent study and full-time efforts in the magic field, I finally scratched my way up to a certain height of my own fame. I published the book, Be a Street Magician!: A How-To Guide (Aha! Press, 1998, $40), which sold several thousand copies and made me semifamous among magicians worldwide. I lectured in 80 cities on the strength of that book, from Los Angeles to Washington D.C., from Anchorage to Adelaide, from Hong Kong to Albuquerque and more.
It was a heady experience. Over 100 people attended my lecture in both Tampa and Sydney. Several top magicians said they had never seen a better Paper Balls Over the Head routine. I met famous magicians all over the country. They knew my name and respected my opinions. I sold my books and tricks and hobbyist magicians stood in line to get my autograph, which I altered slightly to protect against forgery. I answered their every question about the art of deception. They had photographs taken of me and them and hung it on their walls. I lectured in a high-rise in Kowloon to 80+ Chinese magicians, and they gave me my own translator. I flew down to Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Adelaide. One Aussie magician graciously took me on a 10-hour trip out to Rainbow Beach, where we drove at high speed on the sandy beaches and he hung on my every word about the art of magic.
When I returned, I found that my relationship to Peter had changed. I felt differently about myself. I was more of a peer of Peter’s than a mere beginner. Finally, I felt worthy of being Peter’s best friend.
Strangely, that’s when our friendship began to rot.
I’d heard it said that the mentor/mentee relationship goes fine at the beginning, when the mentor is continually being praised as perfect, but can hit a rough patch when the student begins to pull up to a more equal footing.
Peter began to slight me. Then he got rude. Then he got insulting.
I backed off. I was sad, because I had worshiped at his altar for 13 years, going to his restaurant every week without fail, sometimes writing down his pearls of wisdom about the art of sleight of hand.
I knew he was a good man. He made a point of being exceedingly polite to nearly everyone, from the most important moneybags to the lowliest homeless person. But one cannot return to a friendship in which you’re never recognized for what you’ve accomplished. It’s a matter of simple dignity.
When I stopped calling Peter, I wondered if he might call me every so often. But he never did. My career soared, and sometimes, I wonder what he’s doing. Here’s a graph of my sadness: