The Looming Question of His Life

[Continued from a previous post]

Calvin wasn’t what you might call a winner.  He had no love in his life.  He was 150 pounds overweight and wore thick Coke-bottle glasses.  Days, he worked as a bean counter for a school district.  During tax season, he took extra work computing other people’s obligations for H & R Block.  As April 15 approached, Cal would come into the restaurant at 5 pm, eat his greasy dinner, make a dent on his pile of other people’s tax forms while watching Porky’s Revenge or Police Academy 4, and then by 9, would be sleeping in his seat at the counter.  Somehow, his fat kept him upright.  Sometimes, he would snore.

“Are you sleeping much?” I once asked Cal.

“What business is it of yours?” he retorted.

I didn’t consider it an offensive question, so I was taken aback.

“Well,” I said, “because you fall asleep in your seat every evening.  I’m just a little worried.”

“It’s tax season!  What do you expect?”

(It turned out that Calvin had a secret, something distressing that isn’t the point here, but will revealed be in the next installment.)

Closeup Wonderground merge 2 smaller

Over time, despite the ridiculous aspects of Calvin’s personality, I grew to respect him.  Every Friday, I would stroll among the tables and perform closeup magic for those who asked for it–it was my job–but every so often, we would hit a slow patch and I would chat with him.  By 8:30, it usually slowed down to a crawl, and it was then that I would linger with him while he played along with TV Jeopardy.  Watching the show, I was astonished that Cal always beat the television contestants.  Even more alarming, he always beat me.

The moment I realized this, something alarming happened in my head.  I had to rearrange my estimation of him, if only to avoid considering myself his inferior (because obviously, no one is).  The thinking went something like this.

I’m intelligent, but in a different way than he’s intelligent. 

Cal has a kind of left-brain, encyclopedic intelligence, the kind that focuses on names, dates, and details, the kind that ends up as a pathetic bean counter.

I have a kind of right-brain, creative intelligence, the kind that can deal with ambiguities, flow, and chaos, the kind that can grasp two seemingly contradictory thoughts at the same time and not have to reconcile them, the kind that can easily and inevitably win a Nobel Prize in Literature. 

Neurology face 1aUsing that convenient train of thought, I wasn’t inferior to Cal, after all.

But faced with his obvious hyperintelligence, certain other questions sprang to mind.

Why is Cal working as a cog within a wheel?

Why isn’t he rich?

If he’s so smart, why is he so stupid?

When I first performed magic for Cal, he didn’t react the way other people did.  He wasn’t as astonished.

“I respect that move,” he said.

“What move?”

“That double you did.”

David with card smaller

I flinched.  Cal was right, the sleight that I had used to pull off the trick had been a double.  Nobody but another magician would know that, or furthermore, know the technical term for it.

“Years ago, I studied card magic under John Scarne’s son,” he said with a sly grin.

That explained a lot.  John Scarne is a well-known name in magic.  He wrote 28 books on card magic, dice, gambling, and other games, and in fact was the hand double for Paul Newman during his card-manipulation scenes in The Sting. 

Thinking that perhaps I had discovered someone from whom I could learn, I handed Cal the deck.

“Show me something,” I said.

Cal gladly took the deck, and with great flourish, showed me a trick using a sleight called the glide.  My hopes were immediately dashed.  His skill in sleight of hand was rudimentary and embarrassing, and his estimation of those skills, wildly inflated.  There was nothing he had to teach me except arrogance.

But I still humored him.  As a professional magician, I’m not in the business of making people feel bad, quite the opposite.

I walked around for weeks thinking about Calvin and his intelligence.  One day, I finally asked Calvin the elephant-in-the-room question.

“Cal,” I said, “you’re obviously very, very smart.  So I’m asking myself: Why haven’t you gone into business for yourself and made your fortune, or gone into nuclear physics, or developed a new Twitter or Facebook or some other amazing enterprise?  With your brain, you could do it, surely.”

I had peppered the question with high praise, hoping he wouldn’t take it as an insult.  Thankfully, he didn’t.

“My intelligence has always been a gigantic burden to me,” he said.  “It weighs me down.  It hangs around my neck like an albatross.”

It was a moment that I never forgot.  In his face, I didn’t see regret or pain.  Instead, I saw that this was the question he had pondered many, many times, day after day, year after year.  It was the question of his life.

Eventually, I learned about Calvin’s father, and that offered one answer.

Schooner 1a smaller

“He abused me both mentally and physically,” Calvin said, using cold, theoretical words that distanced him from what he was describing.  “He insulted me and beat me.  When I grew big enough to fight back, I didn’t, I just left home.  And I never went back.”

When someone offers up a confession like that, you know that he has some insight into what’s happening.  Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to feel it, and that was a shame.  It seemed that in many ways, now at age 40, it was beyond healing.

That, of course, explains Calvin’s inability to capitalize on his intelligence.  Granted, other people from difficult circumstances use their dysfunction to rise above it all–look at Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, who both came from alcoholic homes–but that’s not how it worked in Calvin’s case.  Everyone needs support during their formative years.  They deserve a father who doesn’t beat them for arbitrary reasons.  If they get a difficult father, it screws up the machinery, and they end up with voices in their head.  Those voices hold them back, trip them, and sometimes, destroy them.  What Calvin told me, in essence, was that he had those voices.

[To be continued]