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People / Places / Things
The Finger!
by Deborah Markus

didn't tell my four-year-old son we were going to a magic show because I knew he'd freak out and insist on not going. I admit that makes me a certifiable jerk. But look, it's not as if I'd invited this guy to perform at my kid's birthday party or something. This was just a little half-hour dealy at the library. The performer was a real actual Magic Castle magician, and you don't get to see that every day, especially for free.

The weird thing about my kid is that he is, in the safety of his own home, insane about magic. His dad, who like many guys pissed away whole years of his childhood fumbling with the simplest of sleights and reading every book he could get his hands on about how magic really works (hint: they don't actually chop that lady in half), has purchased a child-sized cups-and-balls set for our son, and they have spent many happy evenings together getting it to work, sort of. My husband has promised that if my son keeps working at it and gets a little smoother with his hands, he'll teach him a rudimentary "Is this your card?" trick next. My husband has actually shown him some of these, and they always leave my son screaming for more.

So a magic show by someone who really knows what he's doing and didn't occasionally fumble his passes like good old Dad was sure to be a hit, right?

Wrong. Dead wrong. Shows how much you know about kids. Or at least about my little whelp.

"Is this a puppet show?" my son asked as we settled into our seats. Well, seat. He always ends up in my lap at events like this, which means that anything we go to see is tinged, for me, a sandy blonde.

"Not exactly," I hedged.

"What is it, then?"

"There might be a little magic."

He twisted around to face me, eyes wide with alarm. "I don't want to see it," he said.

"Honey, come on. It'll be cool."

"I don't want to."

"But why not?"

He couldn't answer. He didn't know himself. But I did.

He wasn't afraid there'd be anything gorey or scary or icky. He knew I'd never bring him anywhere within a hundred miles of such a thing, if only because I'd run away screaming from such a performance myself.

He wasn't afraid of being bored. Far from it.

He was afraid of exactly what most people long for, or think they long for: the place where magic is real.

Grownups don't believe in that place, and in fact most of them have forgotten that they ever did. That's why magicians performing for adults have such a different attitude and such a difficult job. To keep their audience amused, they have to throw in humor or sex or, in the case of my own personal favorite magicians ever ever Penn and Teller, a dose of good old refreshing cynicism.

But the magician who performs for children is in a different position altogether. It's not just that the kids are more likely to be impressed by simpler stunts, although it must be nice to have an audience that hasn't seen all this stuff eighty thousand times before. It's that this audience is going to appreciate him both more and less, depending on the individual. Many of the kids will be ready to worship him two tricks into the show, which is not only something you don't expect from the adults watching but in fact you'd be rather alarmed if it did. (Women drooling over David Copperfield don't count. It's not his sleight of hand they're admiring, it's his resemblance to the young Frank Langella.) But the younger children won't be as impressed with the magician himself. It's the powers he can call into being, and into action, that are pressing them back into their seats. To the ones who believe in magic, the performer is not someone who has spent patient years working hard enough to wipe out your average drill sergeant. He's more of a channeler, or a priest. He's a magician of the sort people once believed in, one who could trap demons in pentagrams and bend them, for a time, to his will.

Which is maybe why most magicians are so good-natured, often to the point of goofy, when they're performing for kids. Maybe they've learned that for the younger set, it won't take more than a tap to knock these kids into a state of screaming terror.

Think about how weird the world is when you're that little. Try to wrap your head around what it really means to live on a planet where the sky is blue, except when it's pink, or red, or black, or torn by sudden jagged streaks of white; where leaves drop off trees and regenerate (and please let that not have anything to do with how my body works, because I don't want to look down someday just in time to see my hands fluttering away; it's scary enough that Mother keeps insisting on snipping bits of my fingernails off); where you can pick up a piece of innocuous-looking plastic and hear the voice of someone who isn't there, and when you talk he hears you. It's very hard to understand just how strange all this and a thousand other things really are; you've been here too long, you've been telling yourself and having everyone else tell you too that everything you see around you is normal, really, even boring. But a small child hasn't had time to be bored yet. And heaven help you if you've got one with any real intelligence, because he's going to realize that if things as weird as he's already seen are allowed to exist, the sky's the limit. Anything could be waiting to happen.

And that, my friends, if you've any sense at all, is some really scary shit.

So, naturally, understanding all this, I decided to torture my kid by taking him to see Alan Oshiro when he graciously gave a free performance at our local library.

No, that's not what was going through my head. It wasn't.I wasn't trying to avenge myself for hours of labor pains or anything like that. My son is at a crucial age when he's just starting to take a few tentative steps into understanding that, weird as it is, this is his world. He's starting to have a little confidence, feel his own strength -- hard to do when you only recently started being able to look down on a yard stick. I felt sure that, once he got past the initial "AAAAAAAAH! What the HELL is this guy DOING? He just popped a balloon and there was a BIRD in it!" he'd really start to have a good time.

Besides, I'm the Mommy and I have to do all the work around here and don't I ever get to enjoy myself now and then? I hadn't seen a magic show, other than on TV, since before my son was born. And I love magic shows, and consider myself a fine audience member exactly because I'm not one of those people who has to know exactly how a trick worked. I actually prefer not to know. I like to sit there and bask in the fact that there is a perfectly mundane way of achieving what I just saw. I don't have to know what it is. I'm just glad someone does. And I wanted to be reminded tangibly of that fact, and on those rare occasions when Daddy and I have any money it's always either enough for tickets to a show or enough to pay the sitter, never both at the same time. So screw it, I was going to score a freebie and my son was going with me and we were both going to enjoy ourselves, damn it.

"It's okay, honey," I said, as my son hid his face in my neck just as the magician came on stage. "See? He looks like Yo-Yo Ma."

Which he didn't, exactly, but the resemblance was close enough in a vague kind of way to reassure my son, who is a big fan of the Yo-Man. And so the show began. Mr. Oshiro started off the show with a series of silent tricks, as many magicians do. To me the only drawback to this is that it's always a bit of a letdown when they start to talk. There's something so intimately enigmatic about wordlessly waving hand or wand or what-not and making something out of nothing or something into something else. You feel like the sorcerer's apprentice peeking through the keyhole, watching the master conjure just for the love or beauty of it.

Which isn't to say that Oshiro's patter wasn't good. He kept it light and gentle and wry, often acting as the straight man to his own magic, rather than going broadly off into the land of slapstick as some do. When he mentioned that he was thirsty after all that work and poured himself some 7-Up into a glass that promptly started floating in the air, staying connected to the can by a stream of the bubbly, he noted approvingly that the drink contained no caffeine, which was good since this was after all a show for kids. And when he later opened his wallet and noticed (after a moment) that it was apparently on fire, he betrayed some mild alarm, but only about the fact that his money might also be merrily burning away in his very hands. When he saw for himself that all was well in this respect (and then did a winning inside-out dollar bill trick), he was fine, cool as a cucumber.

All of which entertained my son mightily. (It's two months later now and he's still running around the house claiming his nonexistent wallet's on fire and then expressing relief that at least his non-existent money's all right.) There were still forces at work here surpassing his understanding, but that was nothing new, after all, and clearly this magician was someone who could be trusted to keep them in check.

I was also enjoying myself. My only concern, walking in, had been that this guy might be an over-the-topper, like the animal trainer/magician I found absolutely hilarious a year or so ago, in this very venue in fact, but who freaked my son out by firing a few rounds of toilet paper at the audience from a customized semi-automatic t.p. blaster. (At least it was too big for the guy to ever be able to carry concealed, even assuming he could get a permit; but this was small comfort to my son, who had only come to see the promised hedgehogs and parrots and was in grave danger of being too flipped out to notice when they finally showed up.) But Alan Oshiro was soft-spoken, cool but friendly, and I could relax and enjoy the show almost as much as if my lap were unoccupied.

Of course it doesn't end there. How old are you that you still believe in happy endings? Mr. Oshiro ended the show with, of course, his most impressive trick. Unfortunately, his most impressive trick was -- well, impressive.

Are you perhaps acquainted with that charming little device many magicians bear about their persons, the one that looks and apparently acts like a tiny working model of a guillotine? You show it to the audience, decapitate a carrot or two just to prove it really works, and then force some poor schmoe to put his finger in there (heaven forfend you put yours in there, Charlie) and see how far you can send his little heart racing past what his doctor recommends as the highest his pulse rate should go even at the gym. Cute, huh?

Well, Mr. Oshiro had one of these, and I was really proud of my son for not flipping out while the magician went into the Ginsu knife-infomercial part of the trick, though I think his calm may have been due to the fact that everything moved so quickly that he didn't have much time to take in what was (or wasn't) going on. I was just congratulating myself on being past the danger zone when the magician then hauled out a lovely not-so-little device, which I can't exactly describe except to say that any government in possession of it would promptly be condemned by Amnesty International. It was shaped like a thick metal collar, and unfortunately that's just what it was.

Of course, before it was snapped around anyone's neck, Mr. Oshiro had the decency to drive a very real-looking sword through a couple of slots in it, just to give us all an idea of what might happen to any object happening to be in the middle. In case we couldn't imagine for ourselves or anything like that. And then he asked for a volunteer. I was out of there. I was so out of there.

Except I couldn't be, because if I showed my son I was afraid he'd really freak, possibly for life, and all the progress we'd made on the see-honey-it's-just-a-trick front would be blown away forever. I was afraid for about the same reason my son was. That collar was positively menacing. Well, of course it was. If it was a Mr. Happy-Friendly-Let's-All-Sing-a- Song-Boys-and-Girls necklace, where would the trick be? No, it had to be the collar of doom, so that doom could be averted by guess who's magic hands.

I wasn't afraid that the trick would go wrong. I know I said before that I don't know about magic, but if there's one thing I've learned from hanging out with my husband, who does know about it, it's that magicians do not put themselves at risk of anything worse than a bad review, and they are if anything even more concerned for the welfare of their audiences, if only for the sake of that whole review thing. So I wasn't afraid that the equipment would malfunction, or that the guy just wouldn't know what he was doing.

I was afraid that he would know exactly what he was doing.

Do you remember, several issues back, that lovely story your friendly neighborhood Spook magazine carried about that magician who flipped out because his wife left him and so he decided to take it out on a trusting member of the audience in order to make the valuable point that sometimes you should believe your eyes? Especially when those eyes are fairly screaming that you should get the hell out of Dodge right now and don't bother to pack?

I remember that story. I remember that story really well. What I've been trying to do, since reading it, is forget.

I don't believe in magic. I do believe, thanks to having been a mother for lo these four and a half years, in critical-mass flipout. And I don't think you have to be a kid to fall into that.

Of course everything turned out just fine, other than my son screeching in my ear before, during, and after the trick. He wasn't the only one in the audience whose limits of endurance had been tested, I noted without having to look around. And he cheered up pretty quickly when Mr. Oshiro started distributing exactly the kind of hard, sticky candy I have been barring our door to for years.

"Have two," I said. It didn't matter. He could always rinse his mouth with the banana split I intended to go buy both of us right now. Just as soon as I could get outside and find us a good old-fashioned ice cream parlor. Preferably one that would sell me a good old-fashioned stiff drink. Magic shows always do that to me.