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A Magician Taught Me the One Great Trick All Fathers Need to Know

"There is no magic in the magic act for him. But sometimes, a girl walks off the stage in the middle of a trick. Sometimes a boy eats a prop."

We didn’t go there for a magic show. We went for blackberries.

It was the last festival of the summer. Like many of the others, it was fruit-themed and spread over a few blocks in a little town far from our house. Streets blocked off to welcome white canopies, under which candle makers and t-shirt makers displayed their wares. Vendors of fried treats snuggled up to companies offering replacement windows. Clots of people ambled past, slow to spend. It was like a lot of summer festivals. But this was the last. The last before a return to school, the last before a return to the normal schedule, the last before a return of the rains.

We’d driven to the subway station, ridden underground, emerged onto the street, walked to the water’s edge, and bought tickets for the ferry. It was our Big Weekend Adventure. None of us were having a good time. Our daughter was unhappiest of all.

The excitement and anxiety of the impending school year had muddled up inside her chest. She carried many worries: Would she like her new teacher? Would her new classmates like her? Would her friends from last year remain friends this year? Would she have to do a ton of math, would her little brother give her some peace and quiet?

She sat at the ferry terminal, red-eyed and damp-cheeked. Her voice climbed octaves. Her mother could stand no more, declared the Big Weekend Adventure kaput, finito, over. Amazingly, there were more tears left to cry.

I made a successful appeal: If we retreated, returned home, the rest of the day was already written. There would be anger and pouting and sharp words. The kids would be upset, too. But pushing forward across the sparkling water to a place we’d never been? Who knows, anything could happen. And so we sailed.

Off the boat, we pushed through crowds to a group of old men serving gooey slices of blackberry pie and scoops of ice cream. We climbed a staircase, searching for shade, sat on a short wall and slurped our pre-dinner dessert. Now what? A glance at the event schedule, a check of the watch, and off we traipsed to one of the fair’s main attractions: the magic show.

All I wanted was a way to fill time, a measure of activity to justify my appeal to continue the Big Weekend Adventure. I was not expecting much from the final performance of an outdoor magic show at the last weekend festival of the summer. At first, it seemed my expectations were met.

If we returned home, the rest of the day was already written. There would be anger and pouting and sharp words. The kids would be upset, too. But pushing forward across the sparkling water to a place we’d never been? Who knows, anything could happen. And so we sailed.

Picture a narrow street, almost a wide alley. A short stage sits under a tent. Before it, four or five rows of folding chairs on the asphalt. The evening sun is hot and bright in the blue sky. A man speaks into a microphone off stage, introducing the magician, urging applause from the audience. It’s not a large number. A few sets of families. An older couple. The magician steps into view, speaking a greeting. It’s the same voice as the off-stage introduction. The performer and the audience regard each other warily.

What does the magician see? Expectation on the faces of the kids. Disinterest on the faces of their parents. Body language that reveals boredom, lethargy, perhaps even mild hostility. The magician sees a challenge.

Here’s what I see. A man shaved bald, wearing black-framed glasses. A mustache and small goatee frame his mouth. He wears a black t-shirt tucked into black pants. Over that, a paisley button-down shirt, left unbuttoned with the cuffs turned up once. I see a character, carefully clothed.

In my mind’s eye, I see the magician, alone in a room. Practicing the movements of his hands in front of a mirror. Staring intently, looking for the tell that will spoil the trick. I imagine him alone, a video camera watching, checking the angles against the position of an imaginary audience, many times larger than the one I am part of. I imagine him alone, lost in concentration as he builds the secret structure of the finale, the illusion that will bring the audience to its feet. I imagine the hours vanishing, day after day, as the magician runs through the whole act, making small adjustments, pausing to rewind, taking it from the top, polishing the flick of the wrist, the sweep of the arm. I imagine him alone, inside his mind and the world he’s created there, the show that will amaze and astound.

Then I imagine the magician surrounded by people. He’s at a dinner party, or at an after-school gathering of parents. He’s on a cruise, mingling before dinner. He is not performing. This is not the world he has made inside his head. This is the real world, and here comes some random dude up to the hors-d’oeuvres table to make small talk, and here comes the question: what line of work you in, buddy?

What does the magician say?

Magic does not disrupt the convergence of capital via a revolutionary platform. Magic is not spearheading a paradigm shift in the B2B workspace. Magic offers no stock options, no dental coverage, no free parking. Apart from the few superstars, magic gets no respect.

All at once, I realized: the audience is his show. He’s practiced each trick thousands of times. There is no magic in the magic act for him. But sometimes, a girl walks off the stage in the middle of a trick. Sometimes a boy eats a prop.

In this, I feel a kinship with the stranger on the stage. What father wouldn’t?

Sitting alone, building a world inside my head, beginning to describe its features, reconsidering, rewinding, beginning again, choosing what to reveal and how soon, knowing the ending before the audience does, knowing the tricks that lead their attention astray. Sitting among strangers, knowing the question is coming: what line of work you in, buddy? What do I, the writer, say? Apart from the few superstars, writing gets no respect.

And so, at the magic show, I stood far behind the rows of chairs, leaning against a building in the shade, too cool for school. Ready for the performance to suck, ready to abandon the wife and kids, to flee if things became cringe-worthy.

The magician surveyed his audience and met the challenge.

Wisely, he began with audience participation of the child variety. (Hook them early and they’ll stay hooked throughout.) He chose my son to hold a bakery roll high in the air. He chose my daughter to draw a picture on a piece of cloth. She drew the magician. He showed the drawing to the audience, laughed, waved his hands and — poof! — the cloth had disappeared. My daughter walked off the stage. She thought the trick was over. The magician stared after her, amused, locked in mock bewilderment. Now the adults were hooked too. Kids are always screwing up our best-laid plans. My daughter returned to the stage, and after some sleight of hand, the magician found her cloth in the middle of the roll. A round of applause for all, and the kids returned to their chairs. My son got to keep the roll.

Next, a boy in the audience helped the magician control a floating table. Then a different boy took a turn with a magic wand, haplessly knocking over various objects. Now the audience grew large and happy. People walking by stopped to watch, and that attracted others. Then another boy came to the stage and selected an oversized card. He pressed it to his chest and the magician drew the card on a large pad of paper. It was the wrong card. But wait! Here came the correct one, emerging from nowhere on the paper behind the drawing. He tore the page from the pad and handed it to the boy. “What the fuck?!” exclaimed a teenaged girl standing near me. My thoughts exactly.

At some point, the magician looked into the audience and saw something amazing. He stopped the show. He laughed and pointed at my son. “You’re eating the roll! That’s never happened before!”

How did it work? What was the trick? I can’t tell you. Apart from the cloth in the roll, I have no idea how he did anything.

All at once, I realized: the audience is his show. He’s practiced each trick thousands of times. There is no magic in the magic act for him. But sometimes, a girl walks off the stage in the middle of a trick. Sometimes a boy eats a prop. Sometimes a teenager emits a startled profane shout of appreciation. Sometimes the magician wins over the skeptics. Sometimes he earns their respect.

That’s what he did in the finale.

He invited my daughter to return to the stage. He told her that shortly she would be hypnotized, and shortly after that, she would levitate. He picked up two flimsy plastic folding chairs and placed them seat to seat. He picked up a board and laid it on top of the chairs, bridging the gap between their backs. My daughter stepped onto a stool and sat on the board. Then the magician hypnotized her. She closed her eyes, he spun her 90 degrees and laid her down on the board. He took one of the chairs away. Then he took the board away. The magician passed a hula hoop up and down her body. No wires. She was levitating. We clapped wildly.

How did it work? What was the trick? I can’t tell you. Apart from the cloth in the roll, I have no idea how he did anything in the act. If he was here with me now, if I knew he’d reveal the secret, I wouldn’t ask. I don’t need to know.

He made a girl levitate. And while her body was suspended above the stage her, blues floated away. She returned to us buzzing with excitement, talking a mile a minute. She wanted to see pictures, wanted to compare what we saw to what she felt. She laughed and gaped over the photos. She couldn’t wait to share the story with old friends and new classmates. She was a butterfly of joy, flitting around the street in the waning summer sun. She was herself again.

It doesn’t matter how the trick worked. It only matters that it was magic.