Wednesday, November 12, 2008


As a teenager I developed an interest in entertainment magic. There was a novelty shop in town where I would occasionally spend some of my newspaper route earnings to buy magic tricks. I still own a number of those tricks. For most of my adult life they have been stuffed away in storage. On rare occasions I have pulled out some of the tricks and performed them for my family, and even more rarely for other gatherings.

One of the better online magic shops is Magic Geek. Their tricks are categorized by price range, skill level, and performance style. You can get some great tricks for under $10, but you can also dump hundreds of dollars into serious tricks. Skill levels are easiest, easy, intermediate, and advanced. Performance styles include card, coin & money, stage magic, street magic, mentalism, kid show, and fire. Many tricks fit into more than one of these categories.

One of the cool things about the Magic Geek site is that for most tricks, you can click on and watch a brief video of a professional magician performing the trick.

My middle child recently developed a keen interest in magic. Last year for Christmas we gave him several simple magic tricks. A few weeks ago, my son spent some of his newspaper route earnings on a couple of new tricks from Magic Geek. A couple of weeks later his school held tryouts for a talent show. He practiced, entered his act, and was accepted.

When I attended the talent show, I was initially disappointed that my son had not entered to perform a piano piece. He is at least one order of magnitude better than the best piano performer at the show. A couple of singers had great voices. One guitarist was good. But my son’s act brought the house down. It was a huge departure from the other acts. He had the audience firmly in his grasp the moment he did his floating dollar bill trick.

Since then, my son has encouraged (nagged) me to haul out my old magic tricks so that he could learn them. I have some simple tricks, but most of them require some sleight of hand. Some of them are fairly difficult. The only advanced trick I have is the age-old linking ring trick. To really make this look right, you have to practice for many hours. It helps to practice in front of a mirror. Even after years of working at this trick, I am unable to achieve the smoothness required to make it seem amazing.

What my son does not yet understand is that to make any trick look good requires as much practice at performance as it does at technique. Everyone knows that there is some kind of gimmick to every trick. None of it is supernatural. But a good performer takes us to the point where we willingly suspend our disbelief long enough to be entertained by the seemingly supernatural.

To entertain, the magician needs to practice presentation, stage presence, body language, facial expressions, speaking, etc. The performer must temporarily take on the persona of a great magician. Beyond technique, what the magician most needs is strong confidence in his/her ability to deceive the audience. Such confidence masks imperfections and helps beguile the audience, keeping their attention diverted to prevent revealing of the physics behind the trick.

This is where my magical abilities break down, and the likely reason that my tricks sit in storage year after year. Deep within me it feels wrong to engage in deception, even for entertainment purposes. Even though the audience in effect allows itself to be deceived to achieve some entertainment value, it just doesn’t seem right to me to purposefully delude them. This prevents me from having the confidence necessary to perform magic well.

It’s not the same with other types of performance in which I have engaged, such as music. A musician does not rely on trickery to entertain, although a speechmaker might.

Imagine what life would be like if each of us had and heeded an internal passion that prevented us from deceiving others. What kind of difference would it make in politics, business, and personal relationships? I believe that such sensitivities actually do exist in each of us. But sometimes we find it acceptable to squelch these feelings.

Sometimes it is right to suppress such feelings to achieve a greater moral good. For example, dishonesty was good when Dutch and German people lied to authorities about hiding and keeping Jews safe during the Holocaust.

But most of the time our suppressions of truthfulness are driven by much baser motives. For example, we have developed and promoted an entire culture of deceit in our political systems. We have repeatedly demonstrated that we would never elect a candidate that insisted on being completely candid with voters. We don’t want that. Rather, we engage in willing gullibility, as many years of election results demonstrate.

Our representatives ‘represent’ so many people that they only way they can win is to appeal to large masses. To do this, they pander, obfuscate, and deceive. And we buy it. Nobody really expects a presidential candidate to make good on many of her/his promises. Candidates say one thing to one group and promise the opposite to another the same day. We expect deception, yet we elect these people anyway. It’s almost like paying to see a magic show, except that this is not mere entertainment. It has real consequences.

The splendor — and the unpleasantness — of a democratic republic is that we get the leaders we deserve. If we have dishonest politicians, what does that say about the culture that elects and supports them?

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