Some people see magic as little tricks to intended amuse and befuddle. Other people see it as a way of showing others how smart you are. The term fooling people is often used.
But I see it so differently. I see it as a way of eliminating the spaces between people. I see it as a way of stitching up and connecting. When it’s done well–and it’s very rare, but it’s what I aspire to–it’s a way of loving.
To see what I’m talking about, take a look at this performance:
The opening minutes of my Jungle Show is also meant to bring people together, as well:
I was trying to connect, as well, on trip to Kansas in 2005. Claire and I had been together for four years, and her clan back in her native Kansas was eager to meet me. The sisters and other relations drove in from all over Kansas and Missouri–Salina, Hayes, Plainville, Pittsburg, Wichita, Kansas City–to get a gander at the new boyfriend. They all met in Hutchinson, where everybody spent a fun weekend at her sister Becky’s large house.
But my primary focus was the parents. I had met Claire’s mother a year earlier and it hadn’t gone well. Although Mom had been more generous of spirit when she was younger, she had become increasingly strict in religious matters over the years. She had flown out to California and taken an immediate dislike to me. I didn’t have a respectable job. I wasn’t Catholic. I was a liberal. All those factors seemed to portray me as the sort that you didn’t really want involved with your daughter.
One afternoon in California, we had all sat at a Starbucks, chatting. Mom was bristling, as all Kansans with a chip on their shoulder do, at “latte culture.”
“Why do people pay $5 for a cup of coffee out here?” she said. “Back home, you can get a good cup for a dollar, that’s it.”
I was trying to get an idea of what Claire had been like as a child, so I was trying to avoid the political questions and asking about the past. Mom was stonewalling. I asked more questions. Mom still didn’t respond. She felt that introspection itself was a sin, it seemed.
That’s when I remembered some advice on interviewing technique that had been told to me by one of my early mentors in journalism, KT Maclay.
“If you ask a question and the subject doesn’t answer, ask him again,” she said. “If he doesn’t answer then, ask him again. And ask him again and again until he’s so embarrassed that he has to answer it.”
So I did, asking the same question in slightly different ways until I started suggesting answers.
“Was Claire an energetic child?”
“All children are.”
“Was she an inquisitive child?”
“What child isn’t?”
“Was she an innocent child?”
Mom looked straight at me, no smile on her lips.
“She was until she met you.”
It hadn’t been an auspicious start to our relationship, for sure. But I still had a chance with the other half of that couple.
Claire’s father was an exceedingly quiet man. He had been a farmer who had come from a line of farmers, spending long hours every day working the land and harvesting wheat and soy. He had generous instincts. In many ways, he was the classic humble Kansan. I was eager to meet him.
All that weekend in 2005, I got to know the whole family. We had meals together. We played board games. They got to know me. And on Saturday afternoon, 20-year-old Sarah asked the inevitable question.
“When are you going to do some magic?” she asked.
“Whenever you want,” I answered.
“What about now?”
“Sure,” I said.
So I started preparing for a show. When I was ready, I stood at the head of the dining-room table, looked out at the 30 people gathered around me, and started the show.
But there’s always one. Little did I know that one of the relatives was so extremely religious that she objected to magic on general principle. Claire’s Mom had walked into the other room to protest a performance of the devil’s work. She stood in the living room waiting for others to join her protest. But when she realized that nobody else was joining her, she sheepishly wandered back in. Being the only good person in the family can be a lonely job.
My show, as always, was a hit. Kansans aren’t too hip to express their astonishment, as Californians sometimes are. The relatives connected with me on both a magical and a personal level. I was entertaining, I was good at what I did, and I didn’t crack dirty jokes. There was no downside.
At the end, Sarah was begging to know how the tricks were done, so I started performing a trick called Paper Balls Over the Head, which allows me to legitimately explain how a trick is done. Another one of my performances of it can be seen here:
I was performing Paper Balls for 4-year-old Madeleine, and she was so excited by the magic that her astonished reaction became a bit of magic in itself. So I performed the trick again, making a paper ball vanish again in front of her eyes.
Each time, she became more excited and the family became more delighted. So I went a step further, and pulled someone into the secret. I vanished the paper ball and asked Dad to pull it out of her ear. As you can see below, I held it up behind Madeleine’s ear so that Dad could be the magician. To Madeleine, the illusion was perfect. We performed variations on this trick over and over again. We must have done it for a full half-hour.
You can see the delight on everyone’s face.
Magic helped make my connection with this family a success. It was also a great way to connect with Dad, who had nothing caustic or prickly in his personality at all, he was all connection, easy charm, and being at peace with his silence. Dad rarely said more than a few words when he was around others, but he talked easily with me. We had shared something and we both knew it.
Over the years, it has been this performance that everyone remembers most of about David from California.
Eight years have passed since then. A couple years ago, something happened. One day, he was bicycling for exercise, old but robust, and the next, he was dead from brain cancer. Everyone had loved him so much. Nobody had anything bad to say about h im. He was the quietest, most nonjudgmental member of the family.
Last month, I visited Kansas again. Sarah, the young woman who had originally asked me to do some magic (the blonde in the photo above), was getting married now. Before the ceremony started, I spotted Madeleine, who had been the excited 4-year-old. She was now a lovely 12-year-old just starting seventh grade.
“Do you remember that I did magic for you when you were four?” I asked.
It was a bittersweet moment, because you want to be remembered. But gradually, the moment began to brighten. Her face began to change, and gradually, recognition crept into it. Yes, upon reflection, she did remember the magic.
“Mom, that’s the man who did magic when I was little!” Madeleine whispered excitedly to her mother.
Now, Madeleine had an 8-year-old sister named Riley. So I concocted a plan to close the circle, as I like to put it.
“Let’s do the same trick that I did for you when you were four,” I said. “But this time, you’ll help me pull it off.”
In sharing the secret with her, I was stitching up the spaces between us. We were becoming co-conspirators. We were becoming partners. I took Madeleine aside and taught her how to do it. She was delighted to finally know the secret, and she beamed. Then I sat down her sister Riley and started performing the trick.
In performance, Riley was befuddled as to where the paper ball had gone. Then I reached behind her ear. Madeleine secretly handed me the paper ball. Voila! I had pulled the paper ball out of Riley’s ear.
Madeleine, as you can see, was overjoyed. And young Riley had something to think about for the next few years, until one day, a man from California comes up to her at a family.
“Do you remember that I did magic for you when you were eight?”
And that’s the day I’ll pull Riley in on the secret, too.