This post is about the approach I'm taking to performing magic and why I'm performing it the way I do these days. It's going to be a little rambly because the ideas are a little rambly in my head.
I reached out to an old school friend, Kathy, and suggested we meet up as I would be back in our hometown for and extended period over the holidays. While we had exchanged a couple messages over social media, we hadn't seen each other since high school.
We met up for dinner a couple weeks before Christmas at the thai food restaurant owned by another school friend's parents. She looked amazing in a festive red sweater-dress and I told her so.
"You look great too," she said.
"Yeah, no shit," I said, picking up with the witty banter from where I left it when we were 17.
Over dinner she asked if I still did magic.
"Every now and then," I said. "Actually, maybe I can try something with you later."
After dinner we sat in my car talking. At one point she takes the deck of cards out of the cup-holder in the console between us and says, "Show me something."
I have her pick a card, give her the chance to change her mind if she doesn't like it. She ends up with the four of diamonds. I have her tear off the corner, then I have her sign the card and initial the torn corner and put it in her purse.
We step out of my car and walk around the back towards the trunk. With a lighter I burn her card (as much as possible) and let the ash and charred pieces drop on my trunk in a little pile.
"Watch," I say, as I cover the pile of destroyed card with my hand. After a few moments I lift my hand. Nothing has happened. "One more try," I say, and cover the pile again. I let a little more time pass than before and raise my hand again. Still nothing. Just a pile of ash and burnt card. "What the crap?" I mumble. "Screw that. I can't make it work," I say.
"You used to be good," she says.
A half hour later, as we sit in her car talking, outside our old high school, I say, "You know what we have to do tonight, yes?"
She squints at me as if to say, "You know I'm married, right?" But with just enough of a smile to suggest, "But it's a pretty loveless arrangement and I could maybe be talked into something."
"It's been 30 years. We have to dig up our time capsule," I say.
"When did we bury a time capsule?" she asks.
"30 years ago. Just like I just said."
She (understandably) claims to have no memory of this. But who remembers all the stuff you did as a little kid? "I would never have thought of it either," I say, "but I found an old note I made to myself about opening it in 30 years and that jogged my memory. I have no clue what's in there."
We drive to my parent's place and pick up a shovel and then walk a quarter mile to the creek that runs behind our housing development. There is a large tree stump at the top of what used to be our sledding hill. Somehow, in the intervening 30 years, the ground has leveled off to the point where it's almost flat. We're both fairly surprised by how the landscape can change so dramatically in what feels like a short period of time.
I start to dig near the tree trunk where I remember burying the time capsule. After a few minutes with no luck I start rotating around the tree until my shovel strikes something. I ask her to grab it and she pulls out an old, rusted GI Joe lunchbox. (Like this one, but in significantly worse shape.)
We bring it back to my parent's house and open it up on the hood of my car, illuminated by the christmas lights and street lamp. A good amount of dirt has made its way into the lunchbox and we have to sift through it to find everything. There's a Madball. Some M.U.S.C.L.E. men. A can of New Coke. One of her slap bracelets and one of her barrettes with a plastic bow on it. An old dollar. A David Lee Roth cassette and some other little items. Then she removes a worn, sealed coin envelope with my faded scrawl on it.
Don't open for 30 years.
(It won't make sense until then.)
"What is this?" she asks.
"I don't remember," I say. "Open it. Oh... I hope it's not a love letter or something."
She tears it open and removes an old, tattered and beat-up playing card. The four of diamonds, with a missing corner, and her name signed on it in ballpoint pen in her bubbly adolescent handwriting.
We both look at each other.
"Get that other corner I say."
She grabs her purse and removes the corner from her wallet. The initialed corner from the new four of diamonds is a perfect tear-for-tear match with the just unearthed 30-year-old card.
"Shit. I really was good at this stuff." I say, scratching my head.
Here's enough of the method for you to figure out what's going on.
Reverse Psychology Force
1800 Deck (with some extra aging of the card via roughing it up a bit (an "old" card that is almost super smooth and new feeling is bizarre))
A forged signature based on her signed name in an old yearbook.
The slap bracelet and barrette were the only item that actually belonged to either of us as kids. I found them in a shoebox on a previous visit home and remembered taking them from her as a kid because I had a crush on her.
A reader wrote late last year and said:
"Your writing made me examine what I'm putting out there when I perform and WHY I'm performing at all. And while I recognize there might be something awkward or unpleasant about trying to make it seem like I have some unique gifts, I don't really know what the alternative is."
I think a lot of people feel that way and so a lot of people just don't perform.
There are people who want validation and want acclaim and think they can get that by doing magic tricks. I don't really agree with that, but it makes sense on some level.
The problem is, some people "evolve" past this neediness and then feel like, "Well... why bother performing?" And so they'll read and practice and discuss concepts and theory with other magicians, but they won't actually utilize any of these things in the real world. Even the idea that they might use this knowledge to entertain others feels oddly narcissistic or desperate to these people. "Hello everyone! I have just what you need. A little bit of me to brighten your day!"
So if it's not for validation and it's not to entertain them, why do I perform? Why bother spending $50 on a bunch of old toys and burying them in the dead of winter?
You wanted to impress her.
That's not why.
You wanted to charm her. You wanted to hook up with this girl you used to have a crush on.
No. If charming her was the goal I wouldn't bother with a trick.
Someone once told me I act like a teenager, and he intended it as an insult. But I was fine with that comment. I'm into teenagers.
Uhm, not in the creepy way.
And not in the pathetic way, like, "Hey brah, those kicks are on fleek."
In fact, it's probably fair to say I find most teenagers unbearable to be around, but there is an energy they possess that I admire. Teenagers, more than any other demographic, have a restless energy that pushes them to create and explore new experiences.
We associate a desire for new experiences with youth. If you see a 55 year old man and he says, "I'm going to get some friends and we're going to shoot a movie on our iphones," or, "I'm going to see if I can sled off the roof and into the pool," he seems like a youthful guy. Even if the new experience is something more "sophisticated"—if he says, "I'm going to divest my 401k and use the money to open a restaurant"—that feels like a youthful move. It doesn't seem "mature."
I'm wary of the word "mature." It often seems like a euphemism for lazy.
I don't just think new experiences are appreciated more by the young, I think they help keep you young.
And I think amateur magic is uniquely suited to provide people with new experiences.
Lots of magicians say, "I don't want to just do a trick. I want to create an experience."
And then they sit back and do a trick.
I'm not the first person to talk about creating an experience, I just might be the first one to mean it.
Seeing a card trick is an experience for the spectator.
Seeing two card tricks is still just one experience for the spectator.
We pull out a deck of cards and ask the person to select one and they say, "I've seen this one before." And we think to ourselves, "What a fucking idiot. He doesn't even know what I'm going to do." But for him it doesn't matter. It feels pretty much the same regardless. If your audience isn't specifically into magic, then more tricks can just be more of the same. You might wonder how a 4-ace trick can feel the same as Reset, but to some it can. All mariachi music sounds 100% identical to me. All classical ballets look the same. For some people, all card tricks are just cards going from here to there or changing to other cards.
But if you zoom out one level up from the tricks and focus on giving people new experiences you can eliminate this sameness.
This is why I harp so much on removing the performer from the effect.
The performer did this = I saw a performance
This thing occurred = I had an experience
I now think almost entirely in the context of "experience" and not trick.
For example, with the "Peek Backstage" style, the actual trick is almost irrelevant. The interesting thing to the audience is the experience of seeing a work-in-progress by a magician and being part of the effect coming together.
If I want to go to a "haunted" location and float an object, it doesn't really matter what the object is or how it floats. It's about the experience of being in this house where a father wood-chipped his family and now something strange is happening.
I could do the "Peek Backstage" card trick, and then float something at the "haunted" house and those would feel like two unique experiences to someone.
But if I just performed those tricks in my living room without a thought towards experience the spectator would think, "He showed me some tricks." It would just be one experience.
Is this making sense?
But Andy, they ultimately know you do magic and that these things are tricks, so it's all the same regardless of how you try to differentiate them.
No. We're not that rational. If an experience feels different, then it is different.
But that would just be weird to try and spring this sort of thing on the people I know and have been performing for for years. It's more comfortable to ask them to see a trick than say, "Hey, let's drive a half hour from here to some old house where a guy murdered his family and see if something interesting will happen."
I get that. The style of amateur magic I'm proposing on this site is definitely easier to get into with people you haven't performed for before than it is with people you already show tricks to on a regular basis. Those people are in a groove as much as you are. So maybe this is just something you adopt with new people going forward. Or maybe you make a joke out of the whole thing and that lets you transition styles in a more "meta" way. Maybe you make a big pronouncement to your wife, "That's IT! I'm not doing any more magic tricks. What a waste of time. I can't be horsing around with that type of foolishness anymore." Then ten seconds later, "Hey, sweetheart, could I get your help with a voodoo love ritual I'm trying? Rest assured it's NOT a magic trick. I don't do those anymore." I think you will find that even though she's seen 100s of your card tricks, and even though she knows this is just another card trick, and even though she understands you're just kidding around; framing it as a different experience will still trick her brain into taking more of an interest in it.
So that is where my head is at, and that is my focus as we begin Jerx 2017. I'm not doing magic for validation or for people to think I'm clever. I'm not even doing it strictly to "entertain" people. I'm doing it to give people an interesting, novel experience. It's about creating memories. Memories are just new experiences in the past. No one ever says, "Ah yes, I remember the 6th time I fucked my wife." Unless something new happened that 6th time.
Thinking of magic in terms of the experience, rather than the trick, makes perfect sense. As I said, magic is uniquely suited to creating new experiences. The only artistic experience you can give someone if you play the violin is to play the violin for them. That's fine. But magic allows for the creation of any experience.
It's not the sole way I perform. I still end up performing a few mindless card tricks around a coffee table for those who like that sort of thing. I certainly still like that sort of thing. But I think focusing on experience is the most rewarding way to perform (for me at least).
Some of you will get hung up on this because it requires you to invest more thought in the spectator's concerns than your own. It's easier just to do the tricks and be like, "take it or leave it." You're worried that if you perform in a way that suggests you care and put effort into it, that maybe you'll feel dumb if they don't care about it. Okay, that's valid. But it's also an awfully frightened way to go through life. But go ahead, never invest. Then you can lie on your deathbed and say, "I win! No one ever made me feel dumb for caring too much!"
Me? I invest. I invested time planning. I invested $50 bucks buying some old toys from the 80s off ebay. I invested energy burying a lunchbox around the icy roots of a tree stump and then doing my best to make the ground and snow seem undisturbed. But I get the payoff too. I get the memory of that night. The memory of tipsily stumbling through the snow to a place we shared a history as kids— sledding in the winter or capturing tadpoles amidst the cat-tails in the summer (I sound like Tom Sawyer). I get the memory of digging into the hard earth under December's full moon—the Full Cold Moon as the Farmer's Almanac calls it—and the shovel ting'ing off the lunchbox and the look on her face when she realized there was really something there.
"This is the most insane night of my life," she said after matching up the new torn corner to the 30-year-old playing card with her childhood signature on it. "You just made my year," she said, radiating with energy.
New experiences make the world feel new. And when the world feels new, you feel young. Or, at the very least, you recognize that you're not dead yet.
I love music that evokes youth too. (Not music that young people like. They like shit.)
This post takes its name from this fuzzed-out power-pop song by Warm Soda, which has only garnered this one comment in the past couple years on youtube:
"goddamn, this is more teenage than i am (and i'm 15)"