A Little Magic

I would estimate that my card tricks are successful roughly 50 or 60 percent of the time. That’s a decent percentage considering my questionable work ethic. The late Ricky Jay used to say that he never took a trick out into public until he had worked on it for at least a year. I lack that depth of commitment. I do try to practice a trick for 10 to 15 minutes before performing.

Then again, I don’t do card tricks in public.

I only do them for my daughters.

Elizabeth and Katie are 18 and 14 now, high schoolers, one about to go off to college, the other already too old for my taste, and as nostalgia attacks me like mosquitoes, I think now of all the card tricks and coin tricks and mind-reading tricks I have performed for them through the years. There have been a lot of them, dozens at least. I had not thought much about how magic has pervaded our lives until I wrote my book, The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini, but I realize now that magic has been everywhere. A home movie plays in my mind, the girls, babies, toddlers, kindergarteners, fourth graders, tweens, teens, picking seven of hearts and ace of spades and queen of diamonds, me shuffling the deck, messing up, cards dropping to the ground (“That’s OK, Dad, that was still amazing”), and now and and again I would get the trick right, name their card, have it pop to the top of the deck, pull it out of my coat pocket, and I would see their eyes widen, and their mouths open wide to reveal their so expensive braces, and I felt the way I imagine Alexander the Great felt when he, you know, pulled off a successful card trick.

And now, in these last months with all of us still together, I have learned my greatest card trick.

“OK,” I say to Katie, our younger one, “this is a magical deck.”

I show her a blue cardboard box filled with a deck of cards. At this point, she stiffens a little bit, and her eyes focus, and she is at alert. She awaits the challenge. Katie, you see, always tries with all of her might to figure out the trick.

My father sparked my lifelong love of magic with one perfectly timed magic trick. It is one of those memories I see through a crackling black-and-white filter, I couldn’t have been older than 4 or 5. My parents had dragged me to a wedding, and I was bored and cranky and desperate for something I couldn’t explain. Dad wandered over and put a penny in a handkerchief. He crumpled up the handkerchief, put it in my hand, tightened my fist around it, and told me to say a magic word. I’m sure I said Abracadbra because it is, as it has long been, on top of Billboard’s Magical Word/Phrase Hot 100.

The current standings are as follows:

  1. Abracadabra.

  2. Hocus Pocus

  3. Open Sesame

  4. Expelliarmus

  5. Alakazam

  6. Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo

  7. Shazam

  8. Presto-chango

  9. Ala Peanut Butter Sandwiches

  10. Riddikulus

When I opened the handkerchief, there was a tiny toy skull in the penny’s place. And I felt like the world had instantly doubled in size.

Dad never told me how he did it. I asked him, many times over many years. He never revealed his secret and, after a number of those years, he seemed to have forgotten that he had done the trick at all.

Katie has been nagging me for months to tell her the secret of a mind-reading trick I showed her. Before that, she nagged me for months to show her the secret of a different card trick. Before that … this chain goes back a long way. From her youngest days, Katie had to know stuff. She had to know what we were talking about. She had to know the secret we were keeping. She had to know what every word meant, what every phrase meant, what every ingredient was in every dish, what every character, no matter how minor, was doing when not on screen.

“Is she married?” she would ask.

“She’s just a person delivering Chinese food,” we would say.

“Well, I wonder if she’s married,” Katie would respond.

Magic tricks in particular bring out her fanatical curiosity. She watches closely, tries to inspect the props, asks to see the trick done repeatedly. Houdini himself used to say that if he saw the same trick done three times, he would know its secret — but he was not above asking or demanding to see the trick done five or six or eight or infinity times if he couldn’t quite wrap his head around it. Katie is like that.

“OK, so this is a magic deck,” I say, and I hand her the box of Bicycle Rider Back Playing Cards. She holds the box, and I say to her to think of any of the 52 cards in the deck. Any one at all. She strains to think of the right card because she wants to pick the hardest one.

“Do you have it in your mind?” I ask.

“No, not yet” she says, and she goes back to concentrating. I can sense her thinking about each individual card, one by one, each suit, one by one, in an effort to come up with the one that will stay hidden, the one that will not reveal itself.

“OK, do you have one?”

“Yes,” she says.

“Now think hard about that card. Picture it in your mind. Squeeze the deck and think about your card.”

She does this. And then, as she hands me the deck, I ask her card. She says the three of clubs. I shake my head sadly. “Are you sure?” I ask.

“I am sure,” she says.

I open up the card box and pull out the cards and explain that before she began, I made a prediction. I had turned the four cards upside down in the deck. And, I go through the deck, sure enough, the four aces are the only cards that are upside down. I pull them out.

“I was sure you were going to pick an ace,” I say to her, and she looks at me triumphantly.

And then I turn I do the trick.

And Katie looks at the cards and she begins to scream at me, joy, surprise, disbelief and finally, loudly, “HOW DID YOU DO THAT???”

I was called up on stage once during a magic show. We were on vacation in Hawaii, and the magician was funny and good, and then he called me up and asked me to hand over my watch, which I did. He then put the watch in a bag and smashed it with a hammer to the stunned laughter of the crowd. After a little while of explaining that there were no refunds, he brought down a steel box that had dangled over the audience the entire show.

Inside that box was my watch.

On stage, I acted surprised and astonished. But there was something from that night, a disappointment, that has lingered with me for a long time:

I know how he did it.

And I wanted to be fooled.

I wanted to be thunderstruck. That feeling is like nothing else in the world. It isn’t always magic. Sometimes it comes from hearing a gorgeous song or reading an especially lovely section or catching a comedian like Mike Birbiglia who somehow digs inside you and finds that thing that makes you laugh so hard that you can’t breathe. It might happen when you’re in the audience at Hamilton and you can’t keep up with all that you’re feeling or it might happen at a ballgame and everything you expect to see turns upside down.

And then there is nothing like great magic, when the reveal comes, when the car appears, when the mentalist tells you the name of your best friend, when the handkerchief becomes a bird, when the ball comes to life, when wine bottles keep appearing, when one coin becomes two becomes three, and you have that little explosion in your brain.

I feel that explosion less and less often. Yes, sure, this is in part because I have casually explored magic and picked up a few things here and there, but I suspect that it’s more because I grow older and have experienced things, a lot of things, and each bit of experience, each answer I learn, tears away a small strip of wonder. The first time I saw New York, the fuses in my brain popped because there was so much color and life and noise and tension and excitement and laughter and sarcasm. The last time I saw New York, last Tuesday, the prevailing thought in my brain was what a pain in the neck it is to get in and out of LaGuardia.

All of which, maybe, is a way of explaining that I have not told Katie how the trick worked. For one thing, it’s a basic principle of magic, you don’t reveal the secret, my father raised me on that.

And for another, I don’t want her to grow up. Katie will always find answers, and that’s good, of course that’s good. But I want her to keep having little explosions in her brain for the rest of her life.

When I approach Elizabeth with the magic deck she rolls her eyes in that quintessentially high school senior way, and then she sighs and prepares for the inescapable Dad magic trick because she has a good heart, and she understands how much it means to me, and, mostly, because she knows that for a few months longer, Dad still determines her curfew.

You never can quite tell with Elizabeth. Maybe that’s teenagers in general, but Elizabeth has long been particularly inscrutable. Through the two years that I wrote “The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini,” she would periodically come into my office, see all the Houdini posters on the walls and all the Houdini merch scattered about and all those Houdini books spilling out from the bookshelves, and she would roll those eyes and say, “Ugh, I hate Houdini.” And she would walk out.

But that was never the whole story. One day, she texted me from school: “Was Houdini’s mother named Cecilia?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Why do I know that?” she all but screamed through the message app. “I hate that I know that.”

She knows a lot of Houdini stuff, it turns out. She, like Katie, like my wife Margo, like our dog Westley, like so many friends, went on this Houdini journey with me, perhaps unwillingly … but perhaps not. On one stop in Las Vegas, I took Elizabeth along for an interview with the incredible Jen Kramer, the only woman with her own Vegas magic show. At the end of the interview, Jen pulled out a playing card, tore off a corner of the card and swallowed it. She then put the actual card in her mouth and restored it.

Elizabeth still carries around that card in her purse.

“OK, I want you to think of a card,” I say to Elizabeth as I hand her the box of cards, and she does not hesitate, she picks the eight of diamonds before I can even begin the patter. I believed this is because she’s a teenager and, like most of her friends, she just wants this particular thing to be over so she can go do … ?

“Eight of diamonds,” she says, and she hands back the box immediately in a rushed action that says, “OK, show me the eight of diamonds so I can go do … absolutely nothing.”

Magic done well is magic done slowly. You need to build up the tension. You need to build up the drama. My friend Joshua Jay, one of the world’s leading magicians, explains that the most important part of magic isn’t the secret. It is, as the composer Claude Debussy said of music, the silence between the notes.

It’s hard to do slow magic for a daughter ready for whatever it is to end. But I slowly pull out the cards and I flip through them and say, “As you will see, I have turned each of the aces upside down in the deck.”

“I didn’t pick an ace,” Elizabeth says.

“I know,” I say. “I thought you would.”

Then I show her the four aces I had turned over, and I ask her: “What card did you pick again? Are you sure you didn’t pick an ace?”

She groans and says, “Daaa-aaad!” and she tells me her card again, and I look at the four aces sadly. I have messed up. Elizabeth knows, better than anyone, that I only pull off 50% or 60% of my magic tricks. I begin to shake my head and admit that I lack magic and leave her room and let her be a teenager again.

Only then I flip over the first ace. It has a red back instead of the blue back like all the others. And it has a word written in black.

The word is THE.

I flip over the second ace. Another word: EIGHT.

Third ace flipped: OF.

And I wait a a few seconds before flipping the fourth ace: DIAMONDS.


And with this Elizabeth stops. She stares at the cards, and she stares at me, and she stares back at the cards. She picks them up. She says, “OK, that was good.” And then she smiles, and hands me back the cards, and she’s still in the slightest daze, and she’s eight years old again even just for a moment.

“Dad,” she says to me, “I don’t ever want to know how you did that.”